Obama should rue the day he appointed Clinton

The revival of the Clinton psychodrama is blocking Obama's attempt to transcend the old divisions

Hillary Clinton's humourless response to a Congolese student who asked what her husband thought of China's economic relations with the Congo should remind President Obama of the hazards of having the Clinton family drama back at the centre of US politics.

The student, who in fact asked for Obama's thoughts on the subject and had his question mangled by a hapless translator, was dealt a stinging reply by Clinton.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she asked incredulously. "My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion; I'm not going to channel my husband."

The incident confirms that self-deprecation remains an art foreign to Clinton and that her status as secretary of state has done little to assuage her resentment at not landing the top job.

In today's Independent, Helen Wilkinson (while failing to note the erroneous translation) apparently defends Clinton on the basis that she is a female politician and that some of her critics are misogynists. She refers her readers to the almost "pathological" attacks on Clinton during the presidential campaign.

Well, in fact there was something rather vulgar and sinister about the sexist attacks on Clinton.

The Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson, for instance, crudely remarked that Clinton: "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." While right-wing goons, whose idea of a fun day out is to chant "iron my shirt" at female politicians, were painfully conspicuous throughout the campaign.

But what will not do is to rewrite history, as Wilkinson does, and portray Clinton as a political innocent who has always steered clear of smear tactics.

It was Clinton who during the scurrilous campaign to 'out' Obama as a 'secret Muslim' pandered to such paranoia by declaring that Obama was not a Muslim "as far as I know ". And it was the Clinton camp that appealed to the US electorate's basest instincts by circulating images of Obama dressed in traditional Somali garb across the media.

Moreover, Clinton's mendacious claim to have come "under sniper fire" at the Tuzla Air Force Base during her trip to Bosnia (a subsequent video revealed her peaceful arrival) should have disqualified her from holding any political office.

Obama's decision to welcome Clinton into his administration after her disgraceful campaign may have appeared magnanimous to some but to me it seemed almost masochistic.

As Maureen Dowd has cogently argued in the New York Times, the presence of Clinton in Obama's team has stymied his attempt to transcend the old political divisions.

"The postpartisan, postracial, post-Clinton-dysfunction world that Barack Obama was supposed to usher in when he hit town on his white charger, with turtle doves tweeting, has vanished."

At a time when the Obama administration desparately needs to mount a rearguard action against the conservative assaults on its health-care policy it can ill afford the revival of the Clinton psychodrama.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.