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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.