Barack Obama attacks David Cameron. Well, almost

Have you seen his ally John Podesta’s critique of the Tories’ EU policy?

Can those of you who have been seduced by David Cameron's claim to be a "progressive Conservative", in charge of a "modern" Tory party, explain to me why it is that Dave allied his party in Europe with a bunch of "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes" (to borrow a line from St Nick of Clegg) that he wouldn't be caught dead with here in the UK? It is the one question David Cameron, William Hague, George Osborne et al refuse to answer.

And, speaking from personal experience, I note that Tory apologists get very upset whenever anyone even mentions the EPP/ECR issue. The truth hurts, I suppose. But what really drives them nuts (or at least nuttier than they already are!) is if you point out how upset the Obama administration is with the new Tory alliances in Europe, or if you highlight the concerns that have been expressed in private by senior US officials.

In fact, my colleague James Macintyre has received a great deal of flak in the blogosphere -- and has been smeared by a CCHQ press officer -- for daring to report President Obama's alleged verdict on Cameron after meeting the Conservative leader in 2008: "What a lightweight!" (Dare I remind you, reader, that the Cameron-supporting Sun also reported that the US president told an aide, after meeting Blair, Brown and Cameron: "Tony Blair: Sizzle and substance. Gordon Brown: Substance. David Cameron: Sizzle"?)

James got even more abuse when he started to dig deeper into the Tories' love-in with far-right Poles, Czech climate-change deniers and Latvian admirers of the Waffen SS -- and the negative reaction such links unsurprisingly elicited inside the Obama administration.

From James's column in the New Statesman, 6 August 2009:

Most recently, Obama's aides have been alarmed by Cameron's European alliance with Michal Kaminski, a former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland (NOP) party. I have learned that a 29 July column by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian -- echoing my own report of Jewish leaders' concerns over Kaminski in last week's NS -- has been circulated inside the Obama camp. One Democratic Party source close to the administration confirmed to me: "Your assumptions about the beliefs of Obama's foreign policy team are correct -- there are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team."

Nine months on, if anyone had any doubts about the accuracy of James's reporting, then John Podesta's latest piece on the website of his think tank, the Centre for American Progress, should put them to bed.

John who? John Podesta, one of the most influential Democrats in Washington, DC and one of the few strategists close to, and trusted by, both the Obama and Clinton camps. He served as chief of staff under Bill Clinton (1998-2001) and as co-chair of Obama's transition team (between the election in November 2008 and the inauguration in January 2009). If anyone knows what's going on inside Obama's White House and Hillary's state department, it's Podesta.

Here is his damning critique of Cameron, the Conservatives and their EU allies:

Worryingly, under David Cameron's leadership, the Conservative Party's traditional Euro-skepticism has become more extreme. Consider, for example, his decision to have Conservative members leave the European People's Party -- the mainstream center-right grouping within the European Parliament that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP -- to form a new parliamentary group with a maverick collection of racist, homophobic, and xenophobic members of the European Parliament. Beyond the obvious political symbolism this entails -- it is hardly good for Britain's prestige when its European parliamentarians sit with those who have argued the election of a black US president hails the end of civilization -- the decision also illustrates Cameron's willingness to forgo political influence to placate extreme elements of his own party.

The Conservatives are now very likely to punch below their weight in European debates, leaving others to shape the future direction of the EU. Moreover, pledging to "repatriate" powers to Britain -- a commitment that will require the unanimous consent of all 27 EU governments -- Cameron's Conservatives look set to expend what little influence they will have on counterproductive and unachievable measures rather than positive steps forward.

. . . American hopes for a more dynamic and equal European partner are still much less likely to be realized if Britain is on the fringes of the debate about the future of the union.

. . . On both climate and security, Cameron's Conservatives may have respectable views and policies. What is now in question is whether they will have the political heft in Europe to be an effective ally of the United States. It's a question that today is making the Washington policymaking community more than a little anxious.

The case for the prosecution rests, m'lord. Bring on the Tory trolls . . .

 

 

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad