Sell: Cable, Umunna, IDS; Buy: sensible backbench Tories

The New Statesman’s political investment guide for 2013.

It has been a turbulent year for Westminster trading. Stock in pretty much everyone and everything has fallen. It’s bearish out there. The outlook for next year is hardly less gloomy. National reserves of trust are at an all-time low. Scarcity of imagination and competence will continue. The market is over-supplied with mediocrity.

Here we present the New Statesman’s political investment guide for 2013.

Hold

All three of the main party leaders Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron all look relatively secure in their positions. Miliband is unassailable as long as his party is leading opinion polls. Cameron will be undermined by rebellious backbenchers but will, true to past form, make sufficient concessions to ward off the threat of a credible challenge. The overwhelming majority of Tories recognise the absence of a ready alternative. The Liberal Democrats can hardly be satisfied with their position but a majority seem to accept that unpopularity is a necessary consequence of becoming a party of government and that Clegg, as the man who is leading them on that journey, deserves more time to make it work.

George Osborne and Ed Balls  Alike in more ways than either man likes to admit, neither is liked but both are proven operators with serious staying power.

Boris Johnson The London Mayor can’t advance up the political ladder any further until he is an MP and he can’t run for parliament before the next general election without it looking like the start of a leadership bid but with no vacancy – a very exposed position. So he has to bide his time. But too many disgruntled Tories find him useful as a theoretical foil to Cameron for his stock to fall yet.

Buy

Sensible backbench Tories The Conservative leadership will be desperate next year to push forward some moderate voices to counteract the high profile enjoyed by Anglo-Tea Party, Ukip-lite fanatics. Conservatives who sound reasonable and do a good impression of belonging to 21st Century Britain are bound to start cutting through a little bit more. Lesser-known moderate Tories, such as Damien Hinds, MP for East Hampshire, and Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West are worth a look.

Fiscally serious Labour people The premium on Labour MPs who actually think about practical policy responses at a time of austerity is sure to go up. Liz Kendall, shadow social care minister, has a realistic understanding of the fiscal challenge and a detailed grasp of a vital brief. Likwise, Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and scourge of payday lenders. She combines a clear attack line on the rapacious end of immoral capitalism with a quiet commitment to budget discipline. And she doesn’t speak in tedious robotic jargon as pumped out by the party press office.

Chris Huhne? One for the bargain-hunters. There are reports – as yet unconfirmed – that charges of perverting the course of justice that finished the former Energy Secretary’s cabinet career might be dropped. That would open the way for a return to active politics. He’s far too unpopular among Tories and mistrusted by Clegg to get a front line job. But he has enough support in the party rank and file to start causing mischief and right now the price is at rock bottom.

Sell

Vince Cable The Business Secretary is seriously over-priced as a consequence of Labour and Tory people ramping up the idea of him replacing Clegg as Lib Dem leader, largely just to destabilise the third party. It won’t happen. Cable doesn’t have a big enough base among Lib Dem MPs and, in any case, he wouldn’t want to be the man to wield the knife against Clegg, knowing that doing so would diminish his chances of wearing the crown. The Cable leadership talk is a bubble.

Chuka Umunna Shares in Cable’s opposite number on the Labour front bench, Chuka Umunna, have also been trading high for most of 2012. Umunna is talked up as a potential leader of his party one day. He looks and sounds good on television; he has avoided being associated too strongly with any wing of the party. But his rapid elevation through the ranks and high profile have made him a figure of envy and irritation on his own side. Questions are also starting to be asked about the rigour and depth of his economic analysis. As shadow business secretary he should be the face of Miliband’s quest for more responsible capitalism, which means leading an economic operation of sufficient gravitas to rival the more reactionary story coming out of the shadow chancellor’s office. Is Umunna heavyweight enough to counter-balance Ed Balls? Doubtful.

Andrew Mitchell On the Tory side there has been a sudden rally in Andrew Mitchell’s stock, following revelations that cast doubt on the police version of events in the “plebgate” story that finished his career as International Development Secretary. Westminster has been piling into Mitchells on the assumption that he can now return to front line politics. I’m not so sure. He didn’t resign exclusively because of what he was alleged to have said but because so few Tories felt like defending him and plenty were gleefully putting the boot in. The angry temperament that got him into trouble in the first place has plainly left a long trail of resentment that will not be forgotten quickly. This is not a man who can easily slot back into government where he left off. His current rehabilitation is a dead-cat bounce.

Iain Duncan-Smith The Work and Pensions Secretary is feted as a pioneer of “compassionate” Conservatism. Few question his moral determination to make welfare reform a mechanism to rehabilitate poor communities by helping those on benefits back into work. Sadly, that ambition is being undone by cuts inflicted by the Chancellor and by general lack of competence at every level in DWP. 2013 is the year flagship welfare reforms run aground.

Then of course there’s the alternative investment market. George Galloway’s price surely peaked in Bradford in 2012. His ambition is plainly to use Respect as the vehicle for a hard left personality cult built around him. His personality isn't attractive enough to make that work at a national level. On the right, Ukip will continue to make angry mischief up until at least 2014 elections to the European parliament. It could be worth dabbling in Farages now, but switch to safer Tory stocks before the general election.

General warning: the New Statesman is not responsible for views formed on the basis of this advice. Remember, politicians’ reputations can even further down as well as just down.

Vince Cable: "the Business Secretary is seriously over-priced". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.