And the next US president is...

Our US editor's analysis of the Iowa Caucus - a vote that saw a win for presidential hopefuls Obama

I’ve done more than my fair share of tramping the streets of Iowa and bracing the snow of New Hampshire in the past, mainly because the much-hyped caucus and primary elections there are practically the only time when national US politicians literally wear out shoe leather and even come face-to-face with, horror-of-horrors, real people.

Very quickly, though - certainly within a month - the shutters come down when definite Republican and Democratic presidential candidates emerge - and one, at least, then stays cocooned surrounded by Secret Service men for the rest of his life. (This time, given the current hatreds running through the American bloodstream, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have quietly had Secret Service protection for months.)

But for the past week I’ve spent most of my time in DC, vainly trying to explain to Brits why they shouldn’t pay too much attention to whatever turned out to be the political verdicts of 212,000 Iowans - 0.11 per cent of the American electorate, according to my calculations - on Thursday night.

There would, I explained, be a plethora of headlines in the British papers on Friday morning that could range from 'Hillary’s the Gal', or 'It’s President Huck-To-Be' - to, quite possibly, 'Barack Storms His Way To The White House' or even 'Hillary: It’s All Over'.

Yes, the early primaries can be crucial in building what George H W Bush liked to call “the Big Mo” - but they can also turn out to be stunningly irrelevant. Take none other than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton: both lost Iowa, but then went on to win two-term presidencies.

Candidates have to take the strategic gamble either of pouring money and resources into the early small states in the hope of building the big mo, or waiting for the more important ones to come on Super Tuesday. Bill Clinton lost practically all the early primaries, then famously pronounced himself - accurately, as it turned out - to be “the comeback kid” on Super Tuesday the next month.

I’d say it’s now touch-and-go whether Barack Obama, following his victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa, can now maintain the big mo up to and beyond Super Tuesday on 5 February.

Perhaps significantly, post-caucus analysis of his victory in Iowa on Thursday night showed his support came overwhelmingly from the youngest generation of voters - while Hillary’s main bloc of votes came from the over-sixties.

That makes sense: Obama is a spectacular orator who can carry away the politically innocent en masse into moist-eyed enthusiasm, but he will now come under a merciless spotlight.

He is woefully inexperienced in foreign affairs - more so, believe it or not, than George W Bush was when he entered the White House (he, as Texan governor, had at least held negotiations with the Mexican government) - and has failed to convene one single meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s European Affairs sub-committee, which he is supposed to have chaired for the past year.

But he has the funds and fame and perceived glamour to sustain his momentum, and Hillary’s support may now dramatically subside - although Iowa was never going to be one of her stronger states, and both Clintons possess a steely resolve rare in politics.

And on the night of Obama’s Iowa victory she was still 21.2 points ahead in polls across the nation. She remained seven points ahead for next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, too, 20 ahead in Nevada, 0.6 in South Carolina and a whopping 24.8 ahead in Florida for its 29 January primary.

Could she be the “comeback girl” by the time 22 states, including the giant of California where she is currently 19 points ahead, go to the polls on 5 February?

Iowa was certainly a distinct setback for Clinton, but it was quite possibly a fatal one for Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The ultra-smooth 60-year-old Mormon put all his eggs into the basket of the early states to get the big mo, spending more than $7m on attack ads in Iowa alone.

But his slick, ultra-élite background as the near-billionaire former liberal governor of Massachusetts did not go down well with the ruddy-faced Republican farmers in rural Iowa - and the more they saw him the less they liked him. (Yes, I know my description of Republicans in Iowa is a cliché - but there’s some truth to it, too.)

So what happened on the Republican side? Exactly what the New Statesman predicted, of course. "Step forward 52-year-old Mike Huckabee," I wrote in the NS in early November last year - just about the first reference anywhere to the rank outsider, as far as I can see, as a serious presidential contender.

I pointed out then that the guitar-strumming Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor - he was even born in Hope, Arkansas, too - is a likeable fellow amidst a field of flawed oddballs like Romney or Rudy Giuliani, who is keeping his powder dry for the later big states and, like Hillary, remains his party’s frontrunner.

But Huckabee is as ignorant of foreign affairs as Obama - last week he got hopelessly confused about Pakistan and where its borders are - and his appeal to the so-called Christian Right will be much weaker next Tuesday in the politically aberrant, rough-and-ready New Hampshire. Huckabee and John McCain, who was devastated to finish fourth in Iowa, are still neck-and-neck just behind Giuliani in the national polls.

I’m looking forward to the scrutiny that Obama will now face and can’t help wondering whether his halo may now begin to slip. Thursday night in Iowa, Obama modestly told his adoring young fans, was “a defining moment in history.” Perhaps significantly, he started playing the race card he has assiduously avoided in his campaigning up until now: a major strategic error, perhaps? “You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do...the moment when it all begun,” he roared. Maybe. You should never underestimate the gullibility of an American electorate that can put George W Bush into the White House for two terms, but I still have my doubts about Barack Obama's suitability to become America's 44th president.

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.
Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496