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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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