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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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