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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.