Why an Obama victory is in Cameron's interests

Recent evidence doesn't support the idea that Tories and Republicans are natural bedfellows.

At one level the diplomatic protocols to be observed by a Prime Minister towards foreign elections are pretty straightforward. Stay out of it is rule Number 1. Since you can't predict who will win and will have to do business with the victor regardless of preference there is no benefit to be had in naming a favourite.

Easier said than done. John Major famously did himself no favours by conspicuously fancying George HW Bush over Bill Clinton. More recently, David Cameron made relations with new French President Francois Hollande needlessly tricky by advertising his hope that Nicolas Sarkozy would hold onto the job. (An error that Ed Miliband has this week exploited to fairly good effect.)

Mindful of the need not to repeat the mistake, Cameron will tomorrow host Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in this year's US presidential election, in Downing Street. Number 10 has some repair work to do after learning that Cameron's effusive praise for Barack Obama earlier this year was judged unseemly and excessively partisan in the Romney camp. (Ed Miliband will also meet Romney but no-one expects that to be anything other than a token making of acquiantence.)

There is a residual notion around on both sides of the Atlantic that Republicans have a natural affinity with Tories and Labour partner up with Democrats, although the evidence doesn't really support that view. Not recently in any case. There is, of course, the famous intimacy between Tony Blair and George W Bush as a glaring counter-example. Meanwhile the Cameroons' enthusiasm for Obama is unfeigned - approaching something like star worship, although that has as much to do with admiration for the incumbent President's brilliant campaigning style as his political inclinations.

Senior Tories are wisely staying tight-lipped about their hopes for November's poll. There is one obvious reason why they might be glad to see Romney prevail. Obama's economic strategy is, crudely speaking, closer to the stimulus-driven Keynesian prescription for responding to economic malaise than Cameron's reliance on instant, harsh fiscal retrenchment. Labour likes to hold up the growing US economy as proof of the fact that raw austerity is the wrong plan. By extension it should stand to reason that, if Obama is ejected and his economic plans deemed to have failed, Cameron can feel mildly politically vindicated. Ultimately he will want conservatism to be victorious in as many jurisdictions as possible.

But that view, I think, underestimates how far removed the US Republican party has become from what passes as normal political discourse in this country. Romney may be the most moderate candidate the Republicans can muster but the is no disguising the fact that the party's centre of gravity has shifted in recent years to terrain that qualifies as way off to the right of where David Cameron would like the Tories to stand. The "Tea Party" tendency, with its obsessive dogmatic hostility to Big Government, its fixation on the pursuit of anti-liberal culture wars and its nurturing of Christian religious fanaticism has pretty much nothing to offer a British political movement wanting to be taken seriously.

In their book It's Even Worse than it Looks US political commentators Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann memorably describe the Republican party as "an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science."

Even if a President Romney were to distance himself from the Tea Party, a Republican-led US would surely become ever more culturally and politically alien to Britain. There would be no advantage - and some hazard - for Cameron in being perceived as leading the cousin conservative party on this side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, a separate problem for Cameron is the perception that the ongoing global economic crisis is deadly to incumbents. Sarkozy's demise was generally seen as a straightforward decision by the French electorate to sack the person in charge of a failing economy. If Obama loses it would be for pretty much the same reason. It is quite possible that, historical party alignments aside, Cameron would feel more comfortable seeing his old barbecue buddy Barack survive than see another fellow leader felled by the crisis and replaced by a man who stands for a brand of conservatism than many in this country think of as plain nuts.

 

Cameron should be hoping his his old barbecue buddy Barack will survive the election. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.