Japan: "We'd never buy foreign bonds (we might buy foreign bonds)"

Abe puts the squeeze on the BoJ.

Even Japan has limits to what it will do in a currency war. The country's finance minister, Taro Aso, has confirmed that the nation has no plans to buy foreign bonds through the Bank of Japan.

The denial is a slight walking-back of the words of the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last night, who noted — without saying what he actually thought on the subject — that "there are views calling for foreign-bond purchases".

Abe had been discussing the recently revised inflation mandate for the Bank of Japan in parliament when opposition MPs asked him what the bank is actually planning to do to back up its target. Without confirming any particular policy route, Abe named a number of potential unconventional measures, saying that "I hope the BoJ will take effective policy steps that would contribute to overcoming deflation."

The BoJ has every motivation to fight deflation; in the same debate, Abe threatened it with a change in law, saying:

It would be necessary to proceed with revising the BOJ law if the central bank cannot produce results under its own mandate.

While Abe has, for the most part, been content to let the Bank pick its own methods so long as it results in reflation, Aso's comments this morning imply there are limits. Bloomberg's Mayumi Otsuma puts the talking-back in context:

Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters today that Abe’s comments referred to buying foreign bonds as a general policy idea that is available to any country.

It seems likely that the skittishness of the Japanese cabinet is related to the G20's stand on currency manipulation, which was finally clarified after last week's mild confusion. The group is definitely (maybe) against currency manipulation. And while much of what Japan is doing is clearly aimed at affecting the Yen in international markets, it's also capable of being viewed as simple unconventional monetary policy aimed at having a domestic effect. Buying foreign bonds would render that charade a lot harder to pull off, and could lead to some awkward conversations in Moscow this weekend.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.