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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle