Another Freud, Mrs Brown and cats

Perhaps David Freud could devote some of his time to getting bankers into useful work

One of the architects of the Tories' "work programme", announced at their conference in Manchester, is Lord (David) Freud. The programme will demand "rigorous medical checks" on those receiving Incapacity Benefit, threaten the supposedly work-shy with benefit cuts and privatise government jobcentres. Freud produced a report for New Labour in 2007 which made similar proposals, and later helped draft a welfare white paper. But the government ­didn't move fast enough or harshly enough for his taste, so he switched to the Tories.

Freud's talent for inventing ways of getting skivers into useful work is misdirected. For 20 years up to 2003, he was an investment banker, eventually for S G Warburg. His activities included floating Railtrack at far below the market price, losing UK taxpayers far more money than they will ever recoup from getting a few people off Incapacity Benefit. Warburg, with Freud still working there, later became part of UBS AG, one of those Swiss banks that help rich folk avoid taxes in their home countries. It was heavily involved in sub-prime mortgage investments. Freud has said that he worked for a "piratical industry" which made up rules as it went along.

Given this knowledge, perhaps Freud could devote some of his time to getting bankers into useful work, weaning them off the dependency culture that leads them to expect the rest of us, as investors, savers or borrowers, to finance their annual bonuses and, as taxpayers, to continue paying them when things go wrong. The £7.6bn that, according to the Office for National Statistics, bankers received in bonuses between December last year and April this year (the peak period for handing out bonuses) is more than half the annual ­Incapacity Benefit bill. That's in hard times: they got £13.2bn in the equivalent period of 2007-2008.

Emin's tax dodge

We should remain calm about the news that Tracey Emin will relocate to France to avoid paying the 50 per cent tax on high earners.
Andrew Lloyd Webber promised to leave the country if Labour won in 1997, but reneged on his pledge. But would this be the same Tracey Emin who, with other artists, took a petition to Downing Street last year demanding that the government help fund the purchase of two
Titian paintings costing £50m each? There are certain classes of people - artists and bankers among them - whose anxiety to avoid paying tax is exceeded only by their endeavour in finding ways for governments to spend money.

President Blair

Eurosceptics must be delighted at the prospect of Tony Blair becoming the first president of the European Council. He will be in our faces - grinning, waving, slapping backs, doing his "straight guy" act - at every international summit, a constant irritant to those of us who believe he should be doing penance for his catastrophic misjudgements in helping to launch the Iraq war.

Blair loves the limelight. The first EU president, however, should be a low-profile, reticent, rather dull figure, who allays popular fears of a new Bonapartism. If he really cares about the European project, as he has always assured us he does, Blair will refuse the position.

Sex and the Prime Minister

Most comment about Sarah Brown misses the point: she is a public relations professional. She will therefore perform, with complete conviction, any role necessary to improve Gordon's public image, including confiding to a Labour conference that he is "messy" (which spin doctors long ago concluded was the only marketable feature of his "human side") and that he is her hero. What she really thinks of him is anyone's guess.

In the early years of my editorship, the PR company that she formed with Julia Hobsbawm did publicity for the New Statesman. During one of the excellent parties she organised for the magazine, she sat on the sidelines as the then chancellor - to whom she was not yet married - circulated in the room. A woman sitting next to her, unaware of Sarah's identity, declared in a loud voice: "Well, I don't care what they say, I think he's a very sexy man. I bet he gives that girlfriend of his a good going over!" Though she could hardly have avoided hearing, Sarah remained perfectly still, with no discernible change in facial expression, colouring or posture.

Seeing is believing

James Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, makes a speech in Edinburgh complaining about the BBC and the media regulator Ofcom. The Tories say they will scale down one and abolish the other.

The Sun, owned by News Corporation, announces it has switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories. But there was no deal, Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, assures the Guardian. "You would be able to see if there had been."

What exactly we would see is not made clear: perhaps a summit meeting between David Cameron and either James Murdoch or his father from which the participants emerge into flashbulbs, clasped in a brotherly embrace, holding a sheet of paper and shouting: "It's a done deal." But the idea that nothing exists unless we can see it is a proposition that, if accepted, would save everybody time and trouble. Theologians, for example. Or physicists who speculate about anti-matter. As with Schrödinger's cat - which, having been locked in a steel chamber with a radioactive substance, is neither alive nor dead until observed, according to quantum theory - Hunt appears to have put the wretched animal out of its misery by stating that it didn't exist in the first place.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush