Every year, I get heavily involved in the party conference season, speaking at fringe meetings, gossiping with MPs and ministers and generally indulging my appetite for political intrigue.
Then, having made my annual visit to the ‘Westminster bubble’ – albeit away from Westminster – I feel an overwhelming urge to restate what I see as a universal truth.
Last weekend, Angela Merkel debated her opposite number Martin Schulz on television, ahead of this month’s election. What was billed as a ‘duel’ between the German Chancellor and her Social Democrat challenger, was actually more of a ‘tea dance’.
Largely agreeing with Merkel throughout, Schulz made little impact. With a fortnight to go until the 24 September election, it’s now almost certain the Christian Democrats will prevail. Having led her party since 2000, and Europe’s largest economy since 2005, Merkel is set to win another term.
The EU’s Brexit negotiators were apparently ‘flabbergasted’ after their British counterparts launched a legal critique of the Brexit ‘divorce bill’ last week. UK civil servants spent three hours on a detailed line-by-line rebuttal of EU demands for a €100bn (£92bn) settlement. ‘It did not do down well,’ said one Brussels source.
These Brexit negotiations just got serious – and not a moment too soon. The UK is under no legal obligation whatsoever to pay the EU to leave. I’ve never argued we should pay nothing and am not now. We want to exit on good terms, after all. Yet when it comes to the financial side of these Article 50 talks, it is Britain, not the cash-strapped EU, which holds most of the cards.
The end of summer, for economists at least, is marked by the Jackson Hole symposium. This annual central banker summit, set in the picturesque Wyoming mountain resort, is generally of interest only to faceless financial investors and policy wonks. This weekend’s gabfest, though, is likely to attract more attention.
One reason is that this could be the last hurrah for Janet Yellen. The diminutive Federal Reserve boss, the only woman ever to hold this vital post, could soon be replaced. Her first term expires in February – and President Trump could decide not to reappoint her.
High summer marks ‘the silly season’ in journalistic parlance. Amidst a dearth of news stories, hacks scramble around for material – and much speculative nonsense finds its way into print.
We’ve seen important and, indeed, disturbing news this summer. Media attention over the last week has rightly focused on Charlottesville, Virginia. And what looks like another terrorist attack in Europe – this time Barcelona – now leads the bulletins.
The White House is “100 per cent certain” of striking a trade deal with the UK. Having visited Washington last week, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is basking in President Trump’s prediction of a “very big and exciting” free-trade agreement.
As we move toward Brexit, forging trade links elsewhere makes sense. Helping UK exporters sell into the 80pc-plus of the global economy outside EU sends a powerful signal during these Article-50 talks. An agreement with the world’s biggest economy would be a good start. And to think – Trump’s predecessor had us “at the back of the queue”.
The Brexit vote was “overwhelmingly” fuelled by “elderly people obsessed with immigration” said Vince Cable in early July, sizing up the job of Liberal Democrat leader. Back in January, though, the 74-year-old Twickenham MP admitted to “serious doubts that the EU’s free movement policy is tenable or even desirable”.
“I don’t see much upside in Brexit,” said Cable six months ago, the man now confirmed as Britain’s most “elderly” party leader since Churchill. “But one is the opportunity for a more rational immigration policy,”
“The economy, stupid”. It was the campaigning phrase that stuck back in 1992, during Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the White House. Focusing on the economy helped Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in the race for the US Presidency. A quarter of a century on, “the economy stupid” remains a popular political leitmotif, used the world over to stress the importance of living standards in any electoral contest. Donald Trump just brought that sentiment back home.
Amidst the pomp of his French visit and the latest installment of “Russia-gate”, last week saw the launch of MAGAnomomics – a new attempt to put the economy at the forefront of American Presidency. “MAGAnomics means sustained 3pc economic growth”, wrote Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director, in the Wall Street Journal – combining “economics” with the President’s “Make America Great Again” catchphrase. So what are the prospects for the world’s biggest economy under Trump? Will the US perform well enough for Trump to be more than a one-term President?
The UK fishing fleet, around 6,000 vessels, lands some 708,000 tonnes of fish a year, worth almost £800m. The entire industry, including packing and processing, accounts for under 0.1pc of GDP. Fishing, though, was once a large employer. It is also, for many, hugely symbolic of our relationship with Europe.
The UK is withdrawing from the London Fishing Convention, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced last week. This was welcome and important. When it comes to fishing, the gains from Brexit are clear, relatively immediate and should appeal to multiple interest groups.
Economists at big, powerful institutions generally think alike. From HM Treasury to the Bank of England, consensus views dominate. Whether it’s the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the International Monetary Fund, dismal scientists tend to converge towards a single “house view”.
This is, perhaps, hardly surprising. You don’t generally make your career within a large, hierarchical organization if you like thinking “outside the box”. More fundamentally, these “top” institutions are essentially political and strategic in nature – with the strategy determined elsewhere. For all the scientific pretense, resident economists will overwhelmingly serve up what their political masters want to hear.