The British left shouldn't write off Romney yet

The left underestimated Reagan and Bush. It may be making the same mistake about Romney.

 In August 1999, I wrote a memo for Tony Blair entitled "Why George W Bush Will be the Next President of the United States." It was not especially prescient. I just mooched around Democratic pals in Washington and New York and found that none of them could combine the words "President" and "Gore". 13 years later, on two recent trips to both coasts of America and into the midwest, I found the same overwhelming underenthusiasm for Barack Obama. To be fair, he is not quite Jimmy Carter but the parallels keep surfacing. Obama’s best card is Mitt Romney who has taken some  positions that would put him closer to Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage than the Eisenhower or even Reagan Republicans. Indeed, Jeb Bush, the thinking person's George W, recently told a seminar in Manhattan that both his father and Ronald Reagan would  "have a hard time fitting into today's Republican party" as it has moved so far to the right.

Commentators are queuing up to trash Romney after his foreign tour. It will make no difference in the election. George W Bush famously couldn’t name the president of Pakistan in a TV interview in 2000, while Reagan thought François Mitterrand was a communist and laid a wreath on the graves of Waffen SS soldiers in Germany. Was Romney so wrong when he said Britain was not well-prepared for the Olympics? Boris Johnson got excited whipping up crowd fever against Romney in Hyde Park but he and other Olympic boosters are not doing well as the economic slump in London suggests. In Israel, Romney, promised like every wannabe US president, including Hillary Clinton in 2008, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. It won’t happen. In Poland, a Romney aide told the press to "kiss my ass". So what? The photo of Lech Walesa holding up Romney’s hand like a champion will do for the Polish vote in Chicago.

In America,  the liberal-left dislike of Romney may not be enough to offset the Obama record. The "Yes we can" élan of 2008 has turned into the "No we couldn't" morosity of 2012. Figures from the US Survey of Consumer Finances show that the median US family is now no better off than 20 years ago. The Clinton and Bush years made rich Americans ever richer but median family income has fallen from $49,600 in 2007 to $45,800 in 2010 under Obama.

Most Americans are just one serious illness or spell of unemployment away from financial disaster. American trade unions, which negotiated the creation of middle-working class America with high wages for industrial, office and public sector workers between 1950 and 1980, are no longer a force. Only seven in a hundred employees in the private sector are unionised. American labour's attempt at a fightback have failed as auto firms and others slash wages and benefits, and threaten workers with closures if they resist.

Democrats and US trade unions will point to the vicious partisanship of Republicans in Congress and the relentless hostility by well-funded right-wing attack outfits and employers. That's true and the elite east coast commentariat fret and wring their hands at the end of bi-partisanship. But a dominant president creates his own political weather and breaks apart opposition alliances. As the fourth volume of Robert Caro's magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson goes on sale, the necessity of politics as craft, dark art, and forging coalitions is never more evident. Obama is no LBJ.

Like Jimmy Carter persuading himself he could bring the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev into a relationship with America, Obama thought that  if he pressed the "reset" button with Russia, there would be harmony between the White House and the Kremlin. Putin has made no concessions and still believes America is out to get him. As a result, Obama has been quagmired on Syria, on Iran, on the Balkans, and has no foreign policy pluses to show. He has not moved on the Middle East and his war in Afghanistan drags on and on like the last years in Vietnam. Drone strikes have alienated Pakistan and while Osama Bin Laden is dead, jihadi terrorism isn't. To be sure, Obama hasn't been helped by the worst generation of leaders in Europe since the 1930s.  Unlike Thatcher with Reagan or Blair with Clinton, Obama has little bond with Britain's Old Etonian prime minister who is bored by foreign affairs and believes in economics most Americans think come from Downton Abbey times.

If American tax-paying men don't like Obama, the president does have support from women and from the near half of US citizens who are not Caucasian. Romney's Mormonism is compared to Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960. But cultural issues like abortion and gay rights were not an issue in 1960. Today, the Mormons are resolutely anti-gay. Romney's possible running mate, the Florida senator Marco Rubio, was also a Mormon in his youth though he reverted to Christianity. He is a telegenic right-wing American-Cuban but it is far from clear that Miami anti-Castroism matters any more to the bulk of Hispanic Americans. Romney's endorsement of brutal crackdowns of Hispanic immigrants in Arizona has alarmed liberal Republicans. Romney won the nomination by being as close to the Tea Party as possible. But he will be packaged as a centrist for the election.

Nevertheless Obama may win a second term thanks to his opponent’s flaws more than his own strengths. But no one is as sure as in 1984, 1996 or 2004 that the sitting president will be re-elected. Thirty years ago, America elected a Republican president followed shortly by the arrival of a Socialist president in France. In 2012, might the same happen if in a different sequence? The left here and in Europe thought Reagan and Bush were too thick, too right-wing, and too, well, un-European, to become president of the United States. It may be making the same mistake about Romney.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney before his speech in the hall of the University of Warsaw Library. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.