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Promoting Penny Mordaunt shows that Theresa May has neither tactics nor strategy

The Prime Minister has demonstrated her lack of political dexterity again. 

The right person – to the wrong position? Theresa May has appointed Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and formerly minister for disabled people, to replace Priti Patel as Secretary of State for International Development. Mordaunt, a naval reservist, was widely tipped to be appointed to replace Michael Fallon as Secretary of State for Defence. Instead, May promoted her chief whip, Gavin Williamson, which both removed a respected and effective operator from the whips’ office and riled up Conservative backbenchers.

Brexit supporter Mordaunt is well-liked among Conservative MPs so May won’t have any problems on that side. At the department itself, there will be few tears shed for the loss of Patel, a longstanding sceptic of the aid budget who civil servants felt was aiming to gently suffocate the department from within. There is disappointment, however, that instead of getting one of a number of talented politicians who have both experience and a passion for the brief – Rory Stewart is the most qualified, Alistair Burt another contender, Tom Tugendhat a third – they are getting a politician with little in the way of a background or a passion for the project.

Civil servants on the whole like their ministers to have projects. Officials at Defra have been pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove, who they feared would treat the job as a bum assignment but has instead been the most dynamic minister many have served under. But Mordaunt, unlike Patel, has seemingly never expressed any views about her new brief.

In the wider sector, there is excitement at a new minister who, they hope, will come to the subject with an open mind. (Justine Greening also came to the department without much grounding, but quickly immersed herself in it and became well liked in both the department and among the NGOs.)

It’s worth noting, however, that May could have had both: she could have pleased Conservative MPs in general and Brexiteers in particular by appointing Mordaunt to the Defence Secretary post last week, and then would have been free to promote Stewart, or Tugendhat, to the Dfid post, which would have pleased Remainers, nodded to the general urge in the Conservative Party to give the younger generation its moment in the sun, and – by signalling a shift back to the Cameron era of good relations with the international development sector – have helped repair some of the damage to the party’s standing among social liberals.

Instead she’s appointed a promising minister who is highly qualified for the Defence brief to the Dfid job – less than week after she had the chance to give her a job that she is hugely qualified for. But at least May’s managed to keep the Cabinet’s gender and Remain/Leave balance unchanged. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.