George Osborne talks to the press as he arrives for an economic and financial affairs meeting (Ecofin) in Brussels on November 7, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne drops legal challenge to EU bank bonus cap

With attention on the Rochester by-election, the Chancellor makes his retreat.

Under the cover of the Rochester by-election, George Osborne has abandoned his long-running legal challenge to the EU's cap on bank bonuses. The decisive blow came earlier today when an advocate general at the European Court of Justice advised that the new law, which restricts payouts to 100 per cent of a bankers’ salary, or 200 per cent with shareholder approval, should be upheld. 

Osborne said: "I’m not going to spend taxpayers’ money on a legal challenge now unlikely to succeed. The fact remains these are badly designed rules that are pushing up bankers’ pay not reducing it. These rules may be legal but they are entirely self-defeating, so we need to find another way to end rewards for failure in our banks."

Ed Balls has been swift to respond, deriding the move as "a humiliating climbdown". He said: "The Chancellor revealed his true priorities when he decided a year ago to spend taxpayers’ money fighting a bank bonus cap while working families face a cost-of-living crisis. He should tell taxpayers how much money he has now wasted on this challenge, which we warned him against.

"It shouldn’t have taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses, but George Osborne has totally failed to act here in Britain.

"Labour will reform the banks and levy a tax on bank bonuses to fund a paid starter job for young people out of work for over a year."

The cap has been criticised by left-wing economists on the grounds that it simply allows banks to inflate employees' basic pay (which is not subject to claw-back) and does little to tackle the underlying causes of excessive risk-taking. But the politics of this debate are too exquisite for Labour to get caught in technicalities. Expect it to swiftly FOI the Treasury to find out just how much of the public's money Osborne spent on his doomed challenge. 

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that forced to side with either the EU or the City of London, Nigel Farage has sided with the City. He told the Evening Standard: "A lot of people in Rochester and Strood commute to London to work in the finance industry. They will be reading about this in the Evening Standard on their way home and may well feel dismayed by the verdict.

"It is the constant drip, drip, drip of Britain losing every single negotiation and ruling. We never win and it’s time we woke up to that fact."

The former trader added: "If you applied this law to the Premier League you would not expect Britain to remain one of the world’s greatest footballing nations. London is the world’s greatest centre for a lot of industries, including finance."

Farage's stance is consistent with his europhobia and his free market principles. But it is unlikely to go down well with Ukip voters, who, as polls have consistently shown, lean to the left on economic issues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era