Running with the McCainiacs

A McCain candidacy throws up quite a few problems - many Republicans loathe him plus there are conce

Sometime late last year, amidst the premature furore over who the candidates for each party would be, someone thought it might be an idea to get the President’s impression.

Ever the diplomat, and in what turned out to an unusually prescient observation, Mr Bush advised that the reporters “not count John McCain out”. Given the lame duck nature of the President, this didn’t resonate very far among a press corps who had long been dancing a jig on Senator McCain’s political grave.

Unfortunately for the pundit class, it turns out there’s a trick or two left in the old dog (and I mean both the Pres and Longtooth McCain). With Mormon-Mitt finally admitting defeat and accepting that he really ought to leave some money to his brood rather than blowing it all on buying friends (according to the Economist, at a rate of a whopping $110,000 per delegate, and the Huckaboob keeping going for reasons known only to him and Chuck Norris, John McCain has managed to assume the mantle of “presumptive nominee” for the Republican party.

But les jeux are most certainly not faits – aside from the fact that Senator McCain is taking over an incumbent party whose popularity is rather low, he also faces an internal dilemma within the Republican party, best exemplified by conservative harpy Ann Coulter’s statement that she would "campaign for [Hillary] over McCain". Taking a maybe less attention grabbing perspective, Conservative radio chatterbox Rush Limbaugh weighed in stating that Senator McCain “is not the choice of conservatives, as opposed to the choice of the Republican establishment — and that distinction is key”.

For Adam Quinn, an American policy specialist at the University of Leicester, these sorts of voices merely represent a “rump of conservative ideologues” whose “definition of liberal is everyone who doesn’t completely agree with them”. These two may indeed be extremes, but the reason we have had such a fractured candidacy on the Republican side is a deep sense of unease that many Republicans had towards all of their offered candidates for various different reasons. Senator McCain’s perceived liberalism on certain core conservative values and his willingness to work with perfidious democrats marked him out for many. As Louise Ford, an active Republican in London put it, “some [in the Republican Party] see him as a turncoat: seems shaky ground for him to become the Republican nominee.”

Quinn defines McCain’s trouble with his base as “an issues thing that has metastasized into something beyond anything that he has actually done.” He groups the “issues” around four main pillars: campaign finance reform, abortion, tax cuts and immigration. On all four, Senator McCain has been against the traditional conservative base, and for Quinn it is through the blending of these issues into the bruising fight between Senator McCain and then nominee-President Bush in the 2000 primaries (where he tarred the leaders of the religious right as Robo-Mitt – chose to endorse the presumptive nominee, apparently ceding to the prevailing winds in the Republican party that decided that a centrist is the safest option if the Republicans want to avoid abject humiliation in the next election.

For this “silent majority” in the party, the prospects of a McCain victory against Hillary are good, and they certainly give him better odds against Obama than any of the others. However, the prospect of an Obama-McCain match-up is worrying for those supporting him for his centrist views. While he may lose some of his far right, who while unlikely to vote against him (no matter what Ann Coulter says) may choose to sit it out uninspired – the question is can he make up this ground in the centre? If he is facing a Senator Obama, it is a tough call – both have done well amongst independents in primaries, whereas against Senator Clinton it seems a safer call (it is almost impossible to gauge the degree to which the “kill the Hilderbeast” factor will play in his favour). But then again, maybe he can appeal to the Hispanic voters who have voted Republican in past (their Catholic values tend to correlate with Republicanism), and who are apparently not choosing Obama in the Democratic primaries.

Beyond this burden of scepticism within his own ranks, Senator McCain has to universally battle the age factor – he may not be far off Ronald Regan in age terms, but he does not really look it and his health issues are widely known. So the “change agenda” that the Democrats are aggressively peddling will have an even sharper focus. And it is here that the vice presidential question becomes so important – rather than the usual choosing a person who appeals to a specific demographic or state, for Senator McCain it has to be a person who could be seen as viable Presidential material (which is what makes the Huckaboob’s plight so pitiful – there ain’t nothing Presidential about a man who doesn’t believe in Darwinism).

The Mack has returned – the question remains as to who has got his back.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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