David Cameron speaks during a visit to Kingsmead School on February 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron rides roughshod over Miliband again

The Tory leader's exuberant confidence allowed him to dominate the chamber. 

The Tories are purring with confidence at the moment. Their dominance of the media war and new-found unity means that they are scenting victory (even as the polls continue to show them neck-and-neck with Labour or slightly behind). 

The evidence of this was on display at today's PMQs. Ed Miliband asked David Cameron about preferential tax treatment for hedge funds (they are not required to pay stamp duty on their share transactions), linking the policy to the Tories' industry donors. But Cameron swatted his question away with effortless superiority. He questioned why "for 13 years, during many of which he was in the Treasury, they did absolutely nothing about this", before declaring, in reference to Ed Balls's Newsnight interview: "I have to say I'm delighted he's raised the economy on the morning after his shadow chancellor couldn't name one single business leader who backed Labour." 

At this point, the well-drilled Tory backbenches began chanting in unison: "Bill, Bill" and "Where's Bill?" (the first name of the business leader Balls almost remembered). Their barracking  persisted throughout Miliband's second question and they were rewarded with a first-rate Cameron gag: "Do you know what he said, Mr Speaker? He said: 'Bill Somebody.' Mr Speaker, Bill Somebody’s not a person; Bill somebody is Labour’s policy." Cheers erupted behind him. The Labour benches, meanwhile, already becalmed by the grim news from Scotland, were deathly silent. 

Miliband fought valiantly on, pressing Cameron to answer, but the PM had too much ammunition in reserve: the confusion over Labour's tuition fees policy, the tax avoidance of their donor John Mills, even the news that "the person who wrote that 'Things Can Only Get Better' says it no longer applies to Labour." The only moment of relief for Miliband came when he archly observed, as George Osborne sought to brief Cameron on tax policy: "You can't help him, George, you're too far away". 

But while the Labour leader was routed in the chamber, he can hope that Cameron's evasiveness hurts the PM in the country. His refusal to pledge to close the tax loophole (as Labour has done) risks reinforcing the Tories' reputation as the party of the rich (the greatest barrier to a majority). As they deride Labour's weaknesses, the Conservatives would do well not to forget their own. 

Outside of the main exchanges, a notable moment came when Labour MP and shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis questioned Cameron about support for a solar panel business in his Barnsley constituency. The respectful silence with which he was heard was a good example of why many believe he could one day lead his party. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood