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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.