On the campaign trail: Romney gets his facts wrong

Turns out Jeep isn't moving to China.

There must be pool reporters covering the Romney campaign trail who by November 6 will have the Kid Rock song “Born Free” indelibly burned into their brains. Whenever it plays, for the rest of their lives, they will flinch and remember the campaign-trail – because every time Romney or Ryan appears at an event, it is Born Free that heralds their arrival. Every god-damn time.

It plays again in Defiance, Ohio – just up the road from where I'm staying in Hicksville – when a grinning Mitt Romney strides out to speak to a large and enthusiastic crowd on the high school football field, his hair slightly wind-blown. It was an all-star event; Romney was supported by both Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, who had played the role of Barack Obama in Romney's debate preparations.

The audience of around 8,000 was, as usual for Romney, an older, whiter crowd, many who had come in from surrounding counties, Paulding, Williams, Puttnam, Henry, rural farmland areas which are more naturally conservative than the town of Defiance, which has a large United Auto Workers union presence and a huge GM foundry on the edge of town.

Governor Kasich's speech was bullish. “I remember when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and restored the American dream. And folks, I've got a feeling that this is that kind of election...” but Romney's address was workaday. “That Obama campaign slogan, 'forward'; well it doesn't feel like moving forward to the 23 million Americans out of a job. I'll tell you what does feels like moving forward: getting a new President!” was followed by massed chanting of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” and the re-hashing of Romney's usual stump-speech “five-point plan” to deficit reduction, but – apart from at one point – nothing new to see here; even “you did build that” got an enthusiastic redux.

Local reporter Jack Palmer wasn't too impressed with Romney's performance. “I didn't hear any new stuff,” he tells me. “But he was well-received by the crowd. The atmosphere was pretty good, though – they had some country music singers first.”

One line was new, though, and played especially well for Romney here: “I heard this morning,” he told the crowd, “that Jeep is thinking of moving production to China.”

This would be a huge blow for the President. There is currently an enormous Jeep factory in Toledo, an hour from Defiance, and others in the state and in Michigan, and their survival is a key tenet of Obama's reelection – at a visit to the Toledo plant in June he said that the car “symbolises freedom”.  “I'm not sure about that [Jeep line], says Palmer, skeptically. “I hadn't heard that. You'll have to fact-check that.”

I check it, and unfortunately for Romney it isn't true at all. The line came out-of-context from a Bloomberg interview with a Chrysler executive – in context, he is actually saying that the company is thinking of expanding Jeep into China, not in fact closing and moving plants from the US: good news for American autos, not bad.

To remove all doubt, Chrysler said in a statement that: “Bloomberg recently produced a story that led some to incorrectly believe that all Jeep production could shift to China from North America. That is not true, and Bloomberg quickly amended its story to eliminate any potential inaccurate perception. To be clear, Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China.”

Outside the rally, meanwhile, 150-odd Obama supporters and union activists were protesting, including Roger Molnar, a resident of Defiance. He tells me people have come to protest for  wide variety of reasons. “We're for Obama, but there's people with [libertarian candidate] Gary Johnson signs, stop the war with Iran signs, we are the 99 per cenr signs – there are a lot of issues here. The unions have their signs going on.”

Jacob Gallman, a cook at a restaurant in town, is also skeptical of Romney. “Personally, I think some of the stuff he does and says seems like he's almost set up to fail. It's hard to take him seriously.”

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle