Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video on unemployment a day after he was criticised as "out of touch" by the Democrats for telling a jobless crowd in Florida that he too was unemployed.

The video, titled 20,000,000 Bumps In The Road, attacks Barack Obama's claim that "there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery." A seies of unemployed figures in the film declare: "I'm an American, not a bump in the road."

The Romney camp calculated that "President Obama's 20 Million Bumps In The Road Would Stretch From The White House To Los Angeles".

2. Rising GOP star Michele Bachmann has received a poll boost after her impressive performance in Monday's debate. A poll of New Hampshire voters had Bachmann tied for second place with Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination.

The survey by Magellan Strategies put frontrunner Mitt Romney on 42 per cent, followed by Paul and Bachmann at 10 per cent each. Sarah Palin is on 7 per cent, with Rudy Giuliani on 6 per cent, although neither has confirmed whether they will enter the race.

Tim Pawlenty received 5 per cent in the poll, followed by Newt Gingrich with 4 per cent, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman with 3 per cent each, and Rick Santorum with 2 per cent.

28 per cent of those surveyed said that Bachmann gave the strongest performance at this week's debate, with 39 per cent preferring Romney.

3. Sarah Palin has made her first TV appearance since the release of 14,000 emails from her time as Alaska governor.

"It certainly shows the priorities in what was once a respected cornerstone of our democracy, our mainstream media and we see that priorities are quite skewed," said Palin on Fox Business Network's "Freedom Watch". "I hope folks who read the emails learned a lot about energy independence, fish and game conservation, protecting second amendment rights, why I opposed Obama's stimulus package." The emails were released in response to freedom of information requests filed by the media during the 2008 presidential election.

Palin also commented on the downfall of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned his seat after posting lewd photos of himself to women online.

"Anthony Weiner, from henceforth after his personal indiscretions were disclosed, he was going to be rendered impotent basically in Congress and he wasn't going to be effective," she said. "So obviously [resigning] was the right thing to do. Day late dollar short, though. I think he should have resigned when all of this came to light."

4. Republican challenger Tim Pawlenty has admitted that he was wrong not to challenge Mitt Romney over his support for health-care reform at Monday's debate. Pawlenty, who coined the term "ObamneyCare" on Sunday to describe the similarities between Obama's plan and Romney's, told Fox News's Sean Hannity: "I should have been much more clear during the debate ... I don't think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of ObamaCare and then continues to defend it. And that was the question. I should've answered it directly. Instead I stayed focused on Obama."

The former governor of Minnesota acknowledged his mistake in a tweet on Thursday night.


5. Barack Obama has said that he and his wife Michelle have no plans to have another child in addition to their two daughters. The US President told ABC's Good Morning: "I think Michelle's general view is 'we're done' ".

Obama joked that he's prepared for a crisis in the White House next month - his eldest daughter becoming a teenager. He said: "I understand that teenage-hood is complicated. I should also point out that I have men with guns that surround them, often, and a great incentive for running for reelection is that it means they never get in a car with a boy who had a beer."

Commenting on Anthony Weiner's resignation, Obama said: "I wish Representative Weiner and his lovely wife well ... Obviously, it's been a tough incident for him, but I'm confident that they'll refocus and he'll refocus, and they'll end up being able to bounce back."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide