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Britain used to be a strong and stable democracy. Now, writes Philip Stephens, it is suffering a national nervous breakdown. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, he observes, the extraordinary has become unremarkable, the aberrant commonplace. 

Both main political parties are in a funk. The ruling Conservatives are riven by faction, an enfeebled prime minister leads a cabinet at war with itself. The opposition Labour party cannot bring itself to clearly declare its position on Brexit, preferring instead to indulge in internecine battles. Meanwhile, in parliament most MPs think Brexit is an act of folly, yet they will vote against their judgment because the referendum, with its narrow majority for leave, has been invested with an absurd, almost mystical status. Let no one dare question “the will of the people”.

The London political world is bubbling with speculation. Will Theresa May be toppled, or will she cling on in office because her party cannot agree on a viable alternative? In other times, says Philip, the opposition would have offered a point of stability. Not under Jeremy Corbyn. Where this will all lead remains unclear, says Philip. “If there is a slim hope that Britain can emerge wounded rather than broken,” he writes, “it lies in the possibility that things will get still worse in the short term.” 

© James Ferguson

Getting active: US American markets are spinning on a carousel as the latest batch of quarterly earnings comes in. It’s a familiar pattern, but, as Gillian Tett writes, one that may be about to change. A group of influential asset managers is poised to deliver a letter to chief executives urging them to change their reporting style. Instead of focusing on the quarterly earnings dance, the group — which manages $15tn in assets — wants CEOs to talk about long-term growth plans and risks, including their interactions with society. Passive investing is getting active.

Competing visions: Xi Jinping and Donald Trump offer competing visions of global co-operation. In an opinion piece, the Chinese academic Gu Bin compares speeches the two presidents gave at Davos in 2017 and 2018. Gu argues that while both men talked of a shared future, they have very different ideas about what that actually means — from a world in which everyone has to “play by the rules” to one where everyone has “a right to development.” However, for all the differences, he argues, it is possible for both visions to exist along side one another. 

Model outrage: When forecasts by UK government economists of the consequences of Brexit leaked earlier week, Leavers were quick to pour scorn on the downbeat assessments. How could anyone really know how the future would pan out? And hasn’t the number crunchers been wrong before when it comes to Brexit? But, as Chris Giles argues in his latest column, the politicians would do well to temper their criticism. The economic models make no claim to precise forecasting. “They are simple conditional statements along the lines of ‘the thicker the clouds, the more likely it is to rain’,” writes Chris. 

Take cover! What does any politician worth their salt do when confronted with awkward ‘revelations’ in the media? Organise a distraction of course. In his latest Notebook column Robert Shrimsley goes behind the scenes in the office of Gavin Williamson, Britain’s ambitious and gung-ho defence secretary, to imagine a pre-emptive strike in the making. 

Best of the rest

Running dry in Cape Town — Dianna Kane in The New York Times

How Eastern European Populism is Different — by Sławomir Sierakowski in Project Syndicate

Budget 2018 Reveals Modi’s Nerves Ahead Of Key Elections — Mihir Sharma on NDTV.com

China’s #MeToo moment — Jiayang Fan in the New Yorker

To truly remember the Holocaust, we must stay alert to prejudice — Howard Jacobson in The New Statesman

Is Germany catching Trump’s tax disease? by Marcel Fratzscher in Handelsblatt Global

What you’ve been saying

Shopping for higher productivity — letter from Duncan Brewer on Diane Coyle’s opinion piece: ‘Shopping for higher productivity’

Many technologies for improving store productivity don’t solely transfer effort to the customers — they provide a better experience. For self-checkouts, the “unpaid customer labour” is replacing the time spent queueing at a regular checkout — if you spend a few minutes watching which queue moves fastest, it’s clear customers who go to the “effort” of swiping their purchases themselves gain time back by being out of the shop first.

Comment by CuriousGeorge on Brexit Britain’s nervous breakdown

Even pro-EU Conservative politicians seem to be under the illusion that Britain can choose either a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit. They don’t seem to realise that the EU has had it with Britain, after giving it special treatment for decades and been shafted and abandoned in return. Every EU member is going to make damn sure that Britain is taught a severe lesson. So any kind of ‘soft’ Brexit will not be on the table. Britain will be out, full stop. Truly, Britain is behaving like an angry, self-harming teenager with deep identity issues, lashing out at her nearest and dearest. As Bob Dylan sang, “Nobody taught you how to live out on the street, and now you're gonna have to get used to it”.

Ikea founder who revolutionised interior design — letter from Julian Bray on the obituary of Ingvar Kamprad

Your obituary to Ingvar Kamprad misses the point. He wasn’t a designer, but a business person who sold the Scandinavian postwar design ethic around the world at bargain prices based on cut-price manufacturing, cheap labour and tax avoidance. And anyone — that’s everyone — who’s bought a cheap piece of Ikea furniture knows, what looks good often falls apart. He managed to make a fortune selling a dream, but a dream that often crumbles to pieces of woodchip.

Today’s opinion

FT View: The remarkable revival of US oil production Shale is shaking up global markets to mostly positive effect

Bezos, Buffett and Dimon wield a big scalpel Taking cost out of the US health system means forcing hard choices

Social investing goals turn passive managers active CEOs are falling over themselves to talk about corporate responsibility

UK defence minister tries a pre-emptive strike over his life story Williamson issues a bone-chilling warning the day he receives calls about his life

Brexit: Politics, not economics, has a forecasting problem By trashing their own internal evidence, ministers risk following a dishonest plan

China believes in free and fair trade too, President Trump The Chinese model of a market economy is just different from traditional western ones

Global Insight: Germans long for Macron’s brand of political vitality Young leaders in France and Austria accentuate frustration with the old guard in Berlin

Free Lunch: The economic consequences of Mr Trump So far, we are still largely observing Obama’s legacy 

Opinion today: Dimon’s dilemma How should we assess the extended tenure of JPMorgan Chase’s CEO?

The Big Read: Italian election: the resurrection of ‘Saint’ Silvio Berlusconi The former prime minister has recast himself as a pro-EU elder statesman and an alternative to Five Star’s populism

Brexit Britain’s nervous breakdown The country is upending the policies that have set its national course for 50 years

EM Squared: Value stocks’ hopes hinge on growth pick-up Tentative signs emerge of belated upturn for cheap EM sectors

Saudi Arabia’s ‘normalisation’ baffles global business The anti-corruption clampdown has made foreign investors nervous

FT View

Bezos, Buffett and Dimon wield a big scalpel Taking cost out of the US health system means forcing hard choices

FT View: The remarkable revival of US oil production Shale is shaking up global markets to mostly positive effect

The Big Read

The Big Read: Italian election: the resurrection of ‘Saint’ Silvio Berlusconi The former prime minister has recast himself as a pro-EU elder statesman and an alternative to Five Star’s populism

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