Let’s save it, rain or shine

Does anyone want to buy a weather forecaster? With Liam Fox overseeing the Ministry of Defence and promising to make cuts "ruthlessly and without sentiment", it is becoming ever harder to believe our national forecasting service will survive much beyond this glorious - dare I say it, barbecue - summer.

The trouble is, the Met Office is a soft target. We are more sceptical about scientists' ability to predict the weather than we are about an octopus's ability to predict the outcome of a football match. This is largely to do with our own fear of complexity.

Few of us get enough information to judge the quality of the forecast. As I write, one forecast says the overview for the day is "a good scattering of showers mixed in with brighter weather for many of us". Snow or hail would be a shock; beyond that, the words are fairly meaningless.

But, in fact, we don't want our forecasters to be more specific. The most scientifically accurate statements that a forecaster can make involve probabilities, but probabilities leave us floundering. A study in the United States, for example, showed that most people thought "a 50 per cent chance of rain" meant that the forecasters hadn't a clue whether it would rain or not.

What it really means is that, in a given set of conditions, it rains half of the time. But who has time to think through the implications of that when Newsnight is about to start? It's far easier just to let something concrete settle in our minds and, when the next day rolls around and it doesn't happen, complain that the forecast was wrong.

The meteorologists' own science of "forecast verification" is no paragon of detached objectivity. Across the world, various weather agencies measure their success in different ways. The UK Met Office, for example, takes its computer program's forecast and compares the numbers it produces against actual measurements from the weather stations - rainfall, pressure, humidity, and so on. These are combined to give what is called the "numerical weather prediction" index.

Many meteorologists turn their noses up at this, muttering darkly about simplistic approaches to measuring forecast accuracy. But the World Meteorological Organisation thinks we have something worth holding on to: it consistently rates the Met Office as one of the world's top two (Japan is also blessed with accurate forecasters).

Perhaps that accolade alone should make us think twice about selling off the Met Office. To me, however, there is an even more compelling reason.
For most of us, the weather doesn't matter much - generally, we do what we do, come rain or shine. Accurately forecasting and monitoring climate change, on the other hand - a less obvious part of the Met Office's remit - matters to everybody. The idea of making that function a slave to market forces sends a cold front down my back.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.