Rick Perry's fate sealed by an "Oops"

To think that all those millions of dollars raised should come to this: a man who looks too stupid t

Never say politics isn't full of surprises. Last night's Republican debate in Michigan appears to have witnessed the end of one candidate's presidential campaign, but it wasn't Herman Cain who was brought down by the sheer weight of those sexual harassment allegations -- but Rick Perry, who fell victim to the most embarrassing kind of political amnesia.

The Texas Governor may be highly regarded in his home state, but on the national stage he's often come across as something of a joke, with poor performances in previous debates adding to a somewhat lacklustre campaign. Last night though, his fate was potentially sealed by a single word: "Oops".

The actual flub is almost too painful to watch. It was a kind of brain meltdown, as Perry struggled to list the three Government agencies that he would axe. After Commerce and Education, he just couldn't blurt out the third.

As the audience broke into guffaws Perry blundered on, but for the pundits, it was all over. Presidential scholar Larry Sabato called it "the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate". Ouch. Politico quotes an email from one high-level supporter simply stating "I'm sad. Stuck a fork in himself. Can't decide which is worse, Dean scream or Perry oops." On a more serious note, leading GOP senator Jim DeMint admitted "It is a problem. We need to stay on message."

Perry himself insisted his campaign was right on track -- and he's even been trying to make some political capital out of the gaffe, with a new fundraising letter to supporters. We all have human moments, it says, "and tonight Rick Perry forgot the third agency he wants to eliminate. Just goes to show there are too damn many federal agencies."

The candidate himself appeared in the spin room immediately after the debate with that same bluff-straight-through it approach. "I stepped in it out there", he told reporters. "I may have forgotten Energy, but I haven't forgotten my conservative principles."

But any candidate worth a dime wouldn't have had to show up in the spin room in person: it's not exactly front runner behaviour. To think that all those millions of dollars raised, all those endless trips to the furthest flung regions of Iowa and New Hampshire, should come to this: a man who now looks too stupid to win the Republican nomination.

There's just eight weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses -- not long to rebuild an image, not long to urge big-time donors to stay on board. Even in a contest which has been anything but predictable, it's not looking good for Perry. Take an email from one backer, who tries to list three reasons why he still supports him: "He really is, ah... I'll get back to you on the third". "Oops" Apocalypse, as you might say.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser