Behind the scenes in the Troika, madness reigns

"Cyprus is a template", said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, before hastily adding "Oh, wait, no it's not."

Overheard in a bar by our Brussels correspondent.

Well of course everybody’s been completely knackered with the overnight hoo-hah in Nicosia, trying to explain the facts of life to Nicos and chums, who’re clearly not happy anyway and extra jumpy when they hear a Russian accent. Herman had settled down behind his desk for a kip, Wolfgang was in a foul mood, and Mario’s not speaking to anyone at all, since he slammed down the phone on Tuesday saying he was sick of clearing up everybody else’s mess, did we have any idea how much Goldman would pay for a man of his talents, etc, etc.

So the eyes settled on this work-experience lad we’ve had doing a bit of this and that round the office. Not the sharpest tool in the box – main life experience to date was failing a university course in farming IIRC – but keen as mustard and had helped out with the photocopying and got Olli’s ipad hooked up to 3G so we were looking around for something for him to do longer-term. Simple enough, we thought. Talk to the press about the little fiasco in Cyprus, sad face about the sacrifices the Halloumi Massive are suffering, calm notes of triumph about our handling of the situation and how European Unity had prevailed.

A bit of background: things have been a little touchy with our German masters of late, what with the elections this year and Angela reading that biography of Bismarck. Now everyone knows it’s never going to happen, but the refusals to buy these lovely big chunks of Spanish and Italian bank equity without bothering about sovereign guarantees have been getting tetchier of late, so we’ve resigned ourselves to Operation Silence: nobody discusses how we’re going to fix the banks without anyone who has money being involved, Mario papers over the cracks and hopefully something comes up and the whole mess just goes away, because if push comes to shove, there’s not enough money in the pot to make everyone whole.

Unfortunately, what little Jeroen didn’t get was the importance of keeping your trap shut in Operation Silence. So he launches off on this tirade about how Cyprus was only the start , what happened to Russian money launderers today will be Spanish widows tomorrow, depositors of Europe line up to be sheared. And bugger the carefully-prepared script about “Cyprus is unique”, oh no he has to say it’s a template for the rest of Europe, so if you live in colder climes, invest in a sleeping bag, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time waiting for the ATM.

Of course this goes down like a cup of cold sick with the spivs in the markets, blood on the screens, Euro down the toilet, and within seconds we’ve got Francois on line one, Mariano on line two, and the rest of the switchboard jammed by Italians all claiming to be the next Prime Minister. So quickest reverse-ferret in history, very pointed two-liner on the website (would’ve been three lines, but managed to persuade Pierre that “little clog-wearing cretin” didn’t sound very ministerial). So job done for now, These Are Not The Bailout Templates You Were Looking For but lord help us if the cat ever does get out of the bag.

This piece was originally posted on Paweł's blog, and is reposted here with his permission.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the European group of finance ministers. Photograph: Getty Images

Pawe? Morski is a fund manager who blogs at Some of it was true…

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide