In this week’s New Statesman: The Tory Conference Special

Andrew Gimson on Boris Johnson, Neil O'Brien on the Tories' challenges, David Blanchflower on Osbourne's "porkie pies", and a collectors cover from David Young. PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Hilary Mantel.

Andrew Gimson: The man who would be king

In our cover story this week:  Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, takes a look at one of the most fascinating relationships in British politics. The “rivalry” between Boris Johnson and David Cameron - which dates backed to their shared school days at Eaton - may seem like a game but Gimson asserts it is deadly serious.

“Boris Johnson is trying to kill David Cameron,” begins Gimson:

“That may sound like an exaggeration, but the word “kill” was used by Johnson himself, in a column about “the basic drama of politics” written soon after the Labour landslide of 1997: “Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth – as Tony Blair would put it, new life for Britain.”

As a society who favours the “theatre of politics” with a taste for the melodramatic, the battle between Dave and Boris pits the establishment against an outsider. It hinges upon the wooing of Conservative backbenchers, many of whom are “fed up” with Cameron. Gimson writes:

I have been taken aback by the vehemence with which many Tories now dislike him. As one of his backbenchers, first elected in 2010 but involved in Tory politics for much longer, put it to me: “I’ve known the man for years. He’s just no good with his backbenchers, just doesn’t want to give them the time of day.

[...]

A third backbencher, first elected in 1992, said: “I regard Boris affectionately and wistfully, because he is someone who makes the party feel good about itself, feel loved. David Cameron seems to go out of his way to make the party not feel loved. I don’t know how Cameron thinks the army of Tories [in the constituencies] is going to fight for him at the next general election. Secretly I’m one of the people who hanker after Boris. He would make the thing such fun. It would be a white-knuckle ride.”

Despite parallel backgrounds, Gimson goes on to points out the differences between the two politicians. On the charm of Boris’ frazzled spontaneity against Dave’s flawless preparedness...

Like many Englishmen, Etonians are seldom inclined to risk making fools of themselves by trying out new activities in public. Cameron is a typical Etonian: he hardly ever looks unprepared. Johnson is, in this and other respects, untypical: he has attracted an adoring public by appearing never to be prepared.

On their alleged Oxford “rivalries”...

At Oxford, the pattern of school repeated itself. Johnson was a well-known figure, regarded by some as a future prime minister – by giving the wittiest speeches, he managed in 1986, at the second attempt, to get himself elected president of the Oxford Union...A friend of Johnson says he would have viewed the idea of going on holiday with Cameron’s set as “atrocious”, and one can be sure the feeling was, and is, mutual. For Johnson, it would have been absurd to regard the younger, less intellectual and seemingly not very dynamic figure of Cameron as a rival.

And on their respective careers in the Commons...

But while Cameron soon began to make a reputation at Westminster as one of the most astute and diligent members of the new intake, Johnson soon came to be regarded by his fellow MPs as lazy, unprofessional and irritatingly well known...The parliamentary path to power was blocked, and so Johnson decided to have a crack at a popularity contest that no other well-known Tory dared to enter. In 2008 he ran for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone and won. For the next four years, he let no chance go by to attack Cameron, and this May Londoners rewarded him with a second victory over Livingstone. Johnson had demonstrated that, unlike Cameron, he is an amazing campaigner who knows how to persuade Labour supporters to vote Conservative. The mayor celebrated his victory by repeatedly upstaging the Prime Minister at the Olympics.

 

Neil O'Brien: The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

In this week’s Guest Column, Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien numerates the “four main challenges” facing the Tories as their turn to take the stage approaches. First among them is a need to garner votes outside its “southern heartland”. Second is the issue of anti-Tory “urbanites” and the lack of elected councillors in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Third is the issue of the Tories’ “poor showing” amongst ethnic-minority voters (“Among black voters, fewer than one in ten vote Tory” O’Brien reminds us). All tie into the fourth and long standing issue that “the Conservative Party looks after the interest of the rich, not ordinary people.” He concludes:

In summary, a political consultant or a pollster would tell the party it needs to get less pale, less southern, more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and their policy platform on the other...

Voters want to know the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households who live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high-unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

 

David Blanchflower: Osborne's lies

In the Economics Column this week, David Blanchflower wonders how George “Slasher” Osborne will “wriggle out” of his austerity mess at the Birmingham Conference this weekend. But before looking forward, he looks back to some of Osborne’s biggest “porkie pies”: 

It seems appropriate to go back and look at the claims Osborne made, in his speech in 2009, about what he would deliver. First, he said that the Tory party would “lead the economy out of crisis”. That could hardly be further from the truth, as the coalition has pushed us into an even deeper crisis. We are in the slowest recovery since the Second World War and are perhaps even headed for a triple dip.”

Second, Osborne argued in 2009 that the Tories would protect public services and claimed: “We are all in this together.” He had the audacity to repeat this phrase seven times. He went on to claim: “Our determination as compassionate Conservatives [is] to protect the most vulnerable.” In truth, the poor are all in it together and the rich are holidaying in the south of France.

He advises the Shadow Chancellor to avoid the similar pitfalls of mistruth:

My main advice to Ed Balls, though, is to stay away from the pork pies. We all know who told “shameful lies”.

 

Rafael Behr: Rumbles of discontent surround the chancellor and his sidekick

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr charts the Tories’ “line of attack” against their leader in opposition:

Tory strategists have let it be known that they intend to torture Ed Miliband to a slow political death with attacks on his personal authority and his party’s alleged addiction to dissolute spending.

It’s “peculiar”, points out Behr, considering Miliband’s explicit commitment to a future Labour’s fiscal restraint, not to mention the Chancellor’s own “moribund” fiscal strategy which has “led to public borrowing bursting out of its intended constraints”.  Discontent brews around George Osborne and his “sidekick” Steve Hilton:

As the Chancellor’s reputation as a strategist has collapsed, his reliance on a young sidekick to run the Treasury has fuelled charges of arrogance and complacency. They are seen as a double act, obsessed with political machination and uninformed about life on the front line of austerity. One senior Lib Dem aide is caustic: “They don’t know any normal people. They don’t know anyone who has claimed benefits."

Liberal Democrats have an obvious reason for presenting Osborne in such callous terms. They hope to fight an election as the guarantors of kind-heartedness in the coalition. However, that ulterior motive doesn’t mean the attack lacks resonance.


Sophie Elmhirst: The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

In the week’s NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst meets the author Hilary Mantel at her home in Devon. Mantel’s novel Bring Up The Bodies is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, an award she already took home in 2009 for the first instalment of her Tutor trilogy Wolf Hall.  

Mantel speaks candidly about her life, her writing and her battles with physical ill health. Of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, she says, “it was a book in which I felt instantly at home. I felt I’d been waiting all my writing life to get there.”

Though some readers were put off by the book’s style and found its narrative voice confusing, Mantel decided against simplifying her writing, saying, “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”. Although she knows she will lose readers, she doesn’t mind:

It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.

And what if she hadn’t become a writer? She says, she:

 ...would just have suppressed that part of my personality. I think I would have put it in a box that I never opened. I’m not sure I would have been happy doing that. Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.

In The Critics

In the Critics this week, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books, novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy ;Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre ; Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt ; Hans Kundnani reviews Gunter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany ; PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954.

Elsewhere: Rachel Cooke praises “Best Possible Taste”, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic, Ryan Gilbey reviews “Taken 2”, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero, and Will Self talks bowel movements and wheat-free sausages in Real Meals.

 

Elsewhere in the magazine

 

  • Dan Hodges on a good speech by Ed Miliband
  • Samira Shackle on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
  • Jonathan Derbyshire on Eric Hobsbawm.

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Getty
Show Hide image

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