The mood darkens as civil society is shut out of COP15

The early hope and empowerment in Copenhagen is dying as it transforms into a gathering of elite men

The past week in Copenhagen has seen temperatures and tensions rise, building up to the arrival of Barack Obama today. But it's the thousands of ordinary people who travelled to the city with the full intention of being a part of this agreement who are feeling the worst of the burn. Protests, clashes with police and arrests have escalated since Saturday's predominantly peaceful march. The mood among NGOs and campaigners is dark.

One of the factors that has defined this conference is the overwhelming civilian presence. Twenty thousand accreditations were issued to non-governmental agencies for the conference centre, and that figure doesn't touch on the numbers speaking, writing and blogging from fringe venues and events around the city.

The unprecedented scale of the non-governmental presence has had a profound effect on the spirit here. There was a sense at the beginning of the week that sheer popular will meant this summit could not fail -- or at least could not afford to. Hordes of journalists, campaigners and bloggers came, determined to break down layers of political jargon in a quest for transparency.

Thousands of ordinary people came too, wanting, like Simone Lovera, a volunteer forest campaigner and indigenous Paraguayan, "to tell the world that climate catastrophes are not the problems of tomorrow -- we are already living with it".

However, for the past three days, access to the talks has been strictly restricted and quotas have been put in place for observers. On Wednesday, Friends of the Earth was the first to fall victim to the civilian cull. FoE representatives were stopped on entry to the centre and the organisation's entire international contingent was greeted by Yvo de Boer himself, who told them organisers were acting on "intelligence" that they had been planning to disrupt talks with a mass walkout.

Dumbfounded and more than a little insulted, the group staged a sit-in in the centre's foyer. Executive director Andy Atkins reflected the mood among NGOs yesterday when he said "the Copenhagen conference is fast becoming an international shambles".

At a press conference on Wednesday evening, de Boer made a comment on the transparency of the conference. "If you ever witnessed a G8, G20 or EU summit where whole city centres are closed off, with containers and warships circling the venue, I don't believe . . . that there is anything anywhere where you have such access and transparency," he said.

This has been true until now. Ousting Connie Hedegaard from her role as conference president and replacing her with the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was a symoblic gesture. This summit has rapidly changed from a meeting of "united nations" into an elite gathering of the world's most powerful men.

Today only 1,000 independent observers will be allowed access to the talks. As the doors closed to civil society, the hope and sense of empowerment I felt among the people on Saturday's march are beginning to feel like a sad joke.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories