Cameron and Brown hire the Obama magic

Parties prepare for the TV debates.

The Times and FT report today that Camps Brown and Cameron have reached across the Atlantic to borrow a little of Barack Obama's election-winning know-how to help them get into shape for the leaders' television debates.

The Tories have hired Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director (name-checked on this blog yesterday for praising the Daily Show's Jon Stewart), and Bill Knapp, in the form of Squier Knapp Dunn Communications (check out the flag-waving website). Brown, not to be left behind, has employed the services of Joel Benenson, Obama's lead campaign pollster and strategist.

Shipping in American expertise is a good idea -- they are experts at the TV debate format, which is new to British politicians, and the subject of apparently lengthy wrangling between the parties about structure, style and protocol. Perhaps they will import a little professionalism to their speaking styles: the Brits are schooled in the art in the House of Commons, more of a conker-bashing playfight than a forum for serious policy debate.

And it makes sense to turn to the Obama team -- they won, in a legendary campaign, in spectacular fashion.

But I can't help but suspect that the real motive is that Teams Brown and Cameron simply want a magical injection of Obama's qualities (in his vote-winning election incarnation, as opposed to his present embattled state). Hiring his people is one way of getting the fix.

It's like the photo-opportunity fight, the who's-better-friends-with-him tussle, all over again. Remember those cringing pictures of Brown clinging on to Obama's handshake with a pleading look in his eyes (see above)? Or the news that when they met, Cameron gave Obama gifts including a box of CDs by some of the Conservative leader's favourite British musicians, among them the Smiths, Radiohead, Gorillaz and Lily Allen. Translation: "I'm hip; I'm cool; just like you! BE MY FRIEND."

NB: Of course, Cameron now deems poor old Allen "unsuitable" (watch her career crumble before your very eyes). And all this proves is that the Dave U-turn is alive and well and affecting all the great issues of the day.

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.