In this week's New Statesman

Honey, I shrunk the Tories: Are the Conservatives still capable of thinking big?

Cover story: Honey, I shrunk the Tories

In this week’s New Statesman Leader, we ask if David Cameron is capable of restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. The portents for the Tories are not good: 

If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.

As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s 2007 biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering:

Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict. 

We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameroonian world-view, because “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

It makes a startling contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, the former Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with Clementine [his wife] and packed her off to bed”.

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right . . . But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he imagined “the River Tiber, foaming with much blood” because of immigration, “made Powell a hero”, Bogdanor observes: 

. . . particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

And returning to the present day, Rafael Behr argues in the Politics Column that David Cameron and George Osborne are failing to rise to the challenge of multiple crises that will come to define our era:

Moral decay at the heart of the British economy and the fracture of our European relations – these are not ordinary political challenges. They are the stuff of epochal change. Yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor respond as if peeved by the inconvenience and impatient for normal service to resume. They loiter at the gates of history, sucking on the fag end of the old era, unable to conceive of the new one.

Neil O'Brien: "Milibandism" as seen from the right

The leading conservative thinker Neil O’Brien argues in a New Statesman essay this week that it’s time for the right to take Ed Miliband seriously. O’Brien, director of the political think tank Policy Exchange, looks to the Labour leader’s past to offer a right-wing perspective on “Milibandism”:

His story could keep a psychologist busy for years. Just think: your beloved father warns you that Labour are a bunch of sell-outs. You ignore him, and after the 1997 election it looks like you were right. But subsequent events might make it look (to someone who grew up on the left) like Labour were in hock to high finance and Rupert Murdoch all along. So what now, if Dad was right?

Torn between fierce “pragmatism and radicalism”, Miliband needs to resolve his “split-personality dilemma” soon, O’Brien writes:

[W]ill he use the midterm bounce he is experiencing as an opportunity to duck, or to embrace difficult decisions? Underlying everything is a bigger question of who Ed wants to be. The heir to his father and the great breaker of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus? Or just a slightly leftier version of Tony Blair?

Kenneth Branagh Interview

In the NS Interview the actor and director Kenneth Branagh tells Sophie Elmhirst how he responded to his recent knighthood:

I see it as an acknowledgement that makes you think about every person you’ve worked with. My experience is so collaborative. A moment like this just seems – at this end of my life – to be a very nice thing to happen if you’ve been lucky enough.

And he discusses his impressions of the Swedish landscape from his time spent in the country filming Wallander:

[Y]ou look around and there are no street lights and you think, ‘God, what is this like in the winter?’ That may be the product of a weirdly overanxious, overthinking mind, but there is a sort of deadly or dangerous element in the land as well. It’s unforgiving.

In The Critics: A jazz special

A jazz special in The Critics opens with an article by this week’s Critic at Large, Christopher Reid. The poet was “slow on the uptake where jazz was concerned”, but now, listening at home on YouTube to Billie Holiday, “backed by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of jazz’s finest that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge”, he finds himself transported to “another dimension”. 

Elsewhere in the package, the New Statesman republishes a piece from 1960 by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who moonlighted as the NS jazz critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton (a name borrowed from a communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). Hobsbawm’s musical tastes were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, which might explain his disdain here for the “aimless” experiments of the “young modernists” of the 1950s.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • The NS economics editor and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, David Blanchflower, weighs in on the Barclays market manipulation scandal and argues that Paul Tucker has to go
  • Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz debate whether political Islam, as a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, is to blame for Muslim extremism. Or is the real culprit western foreign policy?
  • Clive Stafford Smith on his 18-year fight to free Kris Maharaj from the failed US justice system
  • In Observations, Mehdi Hasan argues that testing makes a mockery of British citizenship; George Eaton on how the Qataris are snapping up prime London real estate; and Nelson Jones on Scientology’s credibility problem
  • Nicholas Wapshott analyses the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling in the NS Letter from America
  • The author and former cricketer Ed Smith describes the mysterious phenomenon of being “in the zone”
  • In Madness of Crowds Will Self expresses his horror at growing bald

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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