Obama and Cameron: the Tory apologists strike back

Irwin Stelzer takes on James Macintyre

The "excellent James Macintyre" (to quote Telegraph religion editor George Pitcher) is away on holidays, so may I step forward and offer a defence of my colleague? James has been annoying the Tory leadership for months now with his various scoops - on the Boris/Cameron row over Crossrail; on Jewish leaders' reactions to Cameron's alliance with Polish MEP - and former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland party - Michal Kaminski; and on Obama's private view of David Cameron - but it is the latter revelations that seemed to have really touched a nerve inside Conservative Central Office. Various anonymous diarists have tried to discredit James's story on Obama and Cameron in last week's magazine and, today, Irwin Stelzer, the neoconservative American economist piles in on James in, of all places, the Guardian:

"With Labour's poll numbers headed south, and its policy cupboard bare, its fans have decided that the personal is, indeed, the political. So what better than to argue that David Cameron is regarded as all sizzle and no substance by the most popular political figure on the world stage, Barack Obama. The US president, we are told in the New Statesman, regards Gordon Brown as a man of "substance", but David Cameron as all "sizzle".

Leave aside the Cameron team's assertion that they have checked with White House sources and hear only denials. They would say that, wouldn't they? Ask instead whether it is reasonable to assume that super-cautious Obama, a lawyer without an impetuous bone in his body, is likely to have derided a man with whom he might have to do business for years to come. The answer is that Obama is as likely to have shared that thought with Cameron's political opponents as Thomas More was to have told Richard Rich of his opposition to Henry VIII's divorce."

Three points are worth making here, in response:

1) Who said Obama shared his thoughts with Cameron's "political opponents"? James simply reported that it is an open secret at one of Britain's leading newspapers that a member of the Obama camp relayed, in confidence, to a senior editorial staffer, the President's instinctive reaction to meeting Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron back to back. Blair: sizzle and substance. Brown: substance. Cameron: sizzle. Government insiders on both sides of the Atlantic indiscreetly share such "secrets" with senior journalists all the time. Stelzer, as a man of great knowledge, intelligence, and learning, should know that, shouldn't he?

2) Tory apologists claim that an American leader would never be so foolish as to criticise, upset or annoy a British ally, future or otherwise. But they forget their own (recent) history. Republican President George W. Bush is alleged to have been so annoyed by fellow conservative Michael Howard's belated oppostion to the Iraq war that he was barred from visiting the White House. And, of course, as James pointed out in his original piece, Prime Minister John Major famously infuriated presidential candidate Bill Clinton when Central Office staffers became involved in George Bush Snr's re-election campaign back in 1992. Again, a man of Stelzer's transatlantic knowledge and experience, should know all this, shouldn't he?

3) Stelzer, like the diarists, focuses on only one part of James's story, conveniently ignoring what I would argue is the more substantive element: that members of the Obama foreign policy team have been circulating British newspaper reports on Cameron's dodgy alliance with Mical Kaminski and, in the words of one Democratic Party source close to the State Department, and quoted by James, "There are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team." Why wouldn't there be? Did Stelzer and other Cameron cheerleaders really think the hard-headed Democratic foreign-policy realists inside the White House and the State Department would simply ignore the Tory leader's isolationism in Europe and his cuddling up to far-right reactionaries in the name of the (mythical) "special relationship"? That wouldn't be "change we can believe in", would it?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.