A heartbeat away from disaster?

I broke one of my own rules last Monday by surfing the 24-hour news channels. We were, as usual, enveloped in a world of constant, menacing threats - with the day divided into three distinct parts. First, we were warned of the perfect storm about to envelop us for ever in monstrous snow drifts; but when we were dramatically taken over to the CNN reporter reporting from the eye of the storm in Pennsylvania, the snow did not seem to cover even the soles of his shoes. Then we were taken to California, where some wretched 15-year-old had pulled out a gun and killed two fellow high-school pupils. Finally came the story of the day, one to get the channels exploding in hysteria: had Vice-President Dick Cheney suffered yet another heart attack?

By Tuesday, it hardly seemed to matter whether he had or not. Compassionate Boy George, asked in Chicago whether his deputy should now cut back on his workload, responded: "No, he shouldn't - because he's needed." Without quite realising it, Dubbya had put his finger on the point about Cheney: that the 60-year-old Bush family retainer is, by far, the most powerful vice-president in US history. Clinton liked to boast that he kept Al Gore in the loop; Bush Sr represented himself as a significant deputy to Reagan, as did Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter.

But no vice-president has ever amounted to more than this, in what John Nance Garner, FDR's first vice-president, famously denounced as an office not worth "a pitcher of warm piss" (the last word is invariably reported as "spit", so as not to offend American sensibilities), just as LBJ's comment about Gerald Ford being unable to "walk" and chew gum at the same time was similarly censored. Alben Barkley, Truman's vice-president, liked to tell the story of two brothers - one of whom went to sea, one of whom became vice-president, and neither of whom was ever heard of again.

But not Dick Cheney - the man appointed to head a committee to find a vice-presidential candidate for Dubbya, who then managed to come up with the magical name of . . . Dick Cheney. It was a telling moment last month when a disturbed man opened fire near the White House in mid-morning. Boy George, the nation was solemnly assured, was safely inside the White House at the time - "working out" in the gym - while Dick Cheney was hard at work at his desk.

Cheney is the head of a crucially important task force to develop a national energy policy (more vital than it sounds, considering that California has been suffering serious power cuts), due to deliver an interim report in November and then more fully next year. He chairs National Security Council meetings, which are not even attended by Boy George.

Every morning, before 7.30am, he is briefed by a CIA man about overnight events around the world. He is in charge of the Budget Review Board, and has acted as a kind of one-man appellate court for aggrieved cabinet members seeking larger slices of the budget in the wake of Boy George's newly proposed tax cuts.

He is also speaker of the Senate, with the casting vote in a chamber currently split 50-50 (but perhaps not for much longer: on the Republican side, Senators Strom Thurmond, 98, and Jesse Helms, 79, are ailing fast). Every Tuesday, Cheney has lunch with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, trying to pre-empt challenges from the Congressional right. On Wednesdays, he lunches with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld (the defence secretary) and Condoleezza Rice (national security adviser). On Thursdays, Boy George himself gets a chance to learn what's going on when he lunches with Cheney, alone. Before the end of the week, Cheney visits a suite of offices he has been allocated just off the main floor of the House of Representatives - the first time anybody can remember a vice- president having offices there - so that he can keep in touch with Republican rumblings there, too.

A heavy workload? Cheney has now suffered four heart attacks, undergone quadruple-bypass surgery (in 1988) and received what we were assured was "urgent" but not "emergency" treatment to reopen an artery that was 90 per cent clogged last Monday. So the vice- president's health - and Boy George's judgement in appointing him as his deputy - is being ferociously debated in Washington. Cheney had his first heart attack while campaigning for Congress in 1978 - and his most recent (not counting last Monday's little kerfuffle) shortly after he learnt last year that the order had been given for a recount in Florida (an order subsequently rescinded by the US Supreme Court). He strenuously denies, however, that stress played any role in what his cardiologist described last Monday as "chronic coronary artery disease".

I have written here before that the success of the Boy George presidency will lie mainly in how successfully he can delegate the serious business of governing to grown-ups like Cheney. Now Cheney's cardiologist will say only that there is "a very high likelihood" that he can "finish out his term" in office; note the use of the singular, it somehow being a given that two terms would be too much to expect from a man clearly not physically well.

Whether Cheney can continue to run national security, plan the nation's energy strategy, liaise with Congress and act as frontman on most heavyweight domestic issues - as well as brief Boy George on what is happening and travel the globe to attend funerals of world leaders, in the time-honoured fashion of vice-presidents - is now seriously in question. Boy George may make light of his deputy's health problems, but they could well come back to haunt him in a way he never envisaged when he made his fateful choice last spring.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.