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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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.