A revenger's tragedy

The intelligence services and religious extremists were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,

Pakistan has a new political leader barely out of nappies. Bila wal Bhutto, 19, has become the new chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. The teenager, who has hardly spent any time in Pakistan and speaks virtually no Urdu, will share the responsibility of leading the most powerful political party in Pakistan with his widower father, Asif Ali Zardari, who has become co-chair of the PPP. This is what Benazir has bequeathed to the party and the nation.

Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, the PPP did not even consider holding an election to find a new leader. There are devoted PPP politicians who could have assumed the mantle of leadership - from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who managed the party during Ms Bhutto's exile, to Aitzaz Ahsan, the brilliant lawyer who led the agitation against President Pervez Musharraf yet was marginalised by her because of his immense popularity. But quite simply, at no time during its existence has the PPP actually practised democracy.

Though she was seen as liberal and west-leaning, Bhutto based her political power on the feudal tenants of her ancestral lands in Sindh. For all that she proclaimed the need for democracy, the PPP, of which Bhutto appointed herself "chairperson for life", is another autocratic fiefdom. It is a family, dynastic business; a Bhutto can only be succeeded by another Bhutto - even if he has to return to Oxford to finish his studies. Ms Bhutto was fully aware of her husband's reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. During her two terms as prime minister, he was known as "Mr Ten Per Cent". Still she appointed him as successor in her will.

"Democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal quoted his mother as saying at his first press conference. In Pakistan, however, this mantra is not as positive as it appears. Politics has become a revenger's tragedy in its regular oscillation between civilian and military rule. Each painful transition creates an agenda of animosity and scores to be settled. When politics begins with the unfinished business of old wrongs, genuine development takes a back seat. The groundwork for another round is evident in the bizarre argument about how Bhutto actually met her death. Did she die from an assassin's bullet, as the Bhutto camp claims? Or from a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of her car's sunroof, as the government suggests? Then comes the question of who instigated the murder.

The government claims Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind the assassination. It produced in evidence a telephone transcript in which Mehsud, speaking in Pashto, congratulates a lieutenant on the operation. Yet Mehsud has denied any involvement. "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman," his spokesman declared. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies." The Bhutto camp endorses this view.

Bhutto herself pointed the finger at Musharraf. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote in an email to her friend and confidant in Washington Mark Siegel. "There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him." People's Party stalwarts also believe that "remnants" from the period of President Zia ul-Haq, who executed Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intended to kill her. She talked of a state within a state, of around 400 people attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who saw her as a threat and would stop at nothing to remove her.

Quite what motivation Musharraf's government would have for assassinating Bhutto, it is hard to discern. He expected her to provide legitimacy for his presidency. Indeed, the very fact that she was eager to participate in the elections put a democratic sheen on his clinging to power. Her death not only weakens Musharraf's position further, but may actually write the final chapter of his rule.

Security experts in Pakistan have little doubt who is behind the assassination. "I am convinced that the intelligence services were involved," says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the highly acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. Only through the collusion of the security services could both a gunman and a suicide bomber have got so close to Bhutto, she says. Other analysts agree. There seems to be a general consensus that renegade current and former members of the ISI are working with religious extremists to spread a reign of terror.

Benazir Bhutto is the highest-value victim so far, but it is not just the PPP that is being targeted. Almost all Pakistani politicians are under threat. Hours before Bhutto's assassination, an election rally organised by the Muslim League, the party of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was attacked by unknown gunmen. Four party workers were killed. The Muslim League blames a pro-Musharraf party, the PML(Q), for the incident. But Musharraf allies are themselves under attack.

On 21 December, the day of the festival of Eid ul-Adha, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Charsadda District, near Pesha war, during Friday prayers. The intended victim, the former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, escaped unhurt but the blast killed more than 50 people. Even religious politicians, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders), who has close ties with the Taliban, have received death threats. "The truth is that anyone can be bumped off in Pakistan," says Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Movement for Justice Party, and it can simply be "blamed on al-Qaeda".

The real function of these threats, attacks and assassinations is to strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and undermine all vestiges of the political process in Pakistan. The intelligence services want to ensure that power remains not just with the military, but with its hardcore religious faction. "Anyone or any institution that can possibly undermine this goal is seen by them as a threat," says Siddiqa. Bhutto was targeted because she was capable of uniting the country against the military as well as the religious extremists. Indeed, most of her criticisms during the campaign were directed towards the extremists and the security services.

Paradoxically, it was Bhutto herself who unleashed these forces. It was under her second administration that the Taliban came into existence with the aid and comfort of the ISI. While she was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and was seen as secular, moderate and imbued with the liberalism and western approach of her Harvard and Oxford education, Bhutto fostered the politics of elective feudalism in Pakistan.

Under her leadership, the PPP became a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past - specifically the overthrow and execution of Benazir's beloved father - rather than an institution generating policy and debate about the changing needs of Pakistani society and maturing a new generation of political leaders. Her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed when he challenged her leadership of the party. His whole family, including Benazir's mother, believes she was behind the murder. Her terms in office were characterised not just by corruption and nepotism, but also by revenge and human rights abuses. She had the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan; she even made her unelected husband minister for investment, which was generally seen as an open invitation to corruption. A common joke during her second term was that the infant Bilawal had been awarded the portfolio of minister for children.

Musharraf in the balance

These democratic deficits stop the PPP from becoming anything other than a dynastic, feudal institution. Yet such deficits are common throughout the political scene. Most politicians in the country, including the spotless Imran Khan, are feudal landowners. Increasingly, Pakistani politics has become sectional, sectarian and regional, tending to spin the country apart rather than offer a vision of a united and hopeful future. Politicians appeal to tribal, regional loyalties and to their feudal "vote banks". Few, if any, escape being tarnished in the eyes of much of the population.

As a consequence, Pakistani politics and governance have totally failed to resolve the basic dilemmas the country has faced since its creation: what is Pakistan as a nation, as an idea? In Pakistan religion has always been a factor. But is that all there is to Pakistan? How should religion find expression in the life of the nation? There must be more to Pakistanis and their deep attachment to Islam than being swept along on the tide of jihadi ideology and the violence and terrorism it breeds. But how can Pakistan develop an alternative vision of itself as a viable state? When can such a vision become the bedrock of public life? These questions cannot be asked, let alone explored, in the current political climate.

The assassination also leaves the future of President Musharraf in the balance. The former general must be seen as a figure of declining utility to western interests. The armed forces, now one of the most hated institutions in Pakistan, are no longer a monolith. They display the same fissiparous tendencies as Pakistani society as a whole. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathies have taken root within the army, the only agency Musharraf supposedly controlled and could use to combat terrorism. His room for manoeuvre was always limited. After Benazir Bhutto's murder, his chances of delivering on any of the hoped-for initiatives in the "war on terror" have evaporated. The last vestiges of US strategy have been destroyed by the gunman and the suicide bomber.

As long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan will be unstable, continually teetering on the edge of chaos. Further US or British manipulation of the country's politics will only make matters worse. Even those who would never support religious extremism and are determined to oppose the growth of terrorist sympathies have an intense dislike for US involvement in Pakistani politics. Opposition to the course of US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks has hardened antipathy and made countering the rise of religious extremism ever more difficult.

Civil society

A great deal of hope is being pinned on the coming elections. Bhutto's death has brought the opposition parties together. All political parties will now participate in the elections, including the Muslim League, the second major party, which had decided to boycott them after the assassination. However, it would be wrong to assume that a PPP victory, based on a sympathy vote, would greatly reduce the underlying, simmering tensions. The extremists and their supporters in the ISI are not through with Pakistan quite yet. The polls will undoubtedly be rigged in favour of Musharraf's party. If his supporters lose power, the scene would be set for further, and open, confrontation between the president and the newly elected government. Far from resolving anything, the elections, which were expected to be delayed until next month, may actually perpetuate the crisis.

The only sign of hope lies in the diverse character of Pakistani society, in which comment, opinion, ideas and debate are vibrant and thriving, powered not least by the emergence of satellite and cable television stations. A civil society exists, which stands apart from politics and the military. Neglected, yet robust, that civil society is the unexplored pole of all the sectional interests in Pakistan. It was elements from this sector - the judiciary, lawyers, human rights groups, news media, non-governmental organisations, students and minor parties - whom Musharraf had to restrict and destabilise to ensure his survival. They offer the prospect of a fresh departure from which a healthier, more sustainable and enduring politics might emerge.

Although the agencies of civil society are themselves still in disarray, they may yet rescue Pakistan from the motley crew of Musharraf, the military, feudal politicians and religious fanatics. Bringing a country where the political process becomes ever more discredited and hostage to violence back to sanity will not be easy, painless or swift: Pakistan is poised to endure a great deal of pain and suffering for the foreseeable future.

the Bhuttos by numbers

4 suffered unnatural deaths (Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir)

5 studied at Oxford (Zulfikar, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and now Bilawal)

$8.6m fine imposed in 1999 on Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, over corruption charges (later overturned)

$1.5bn estimated profits from kickbacks made by Bhutto family and associates, according to 1996 investigation

0 pieces of major legislation passed by Benazir in first term as prime minister

10 per cent Zardari's nickname, on account of dubious business dealings

Research by Alyssa McDonald

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge