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The Joe and Hillary show

Obama has taken a colossal risk in choosing the gaffe-prone Biden and may come to regret not opting

We have now reached the end of day two of the eight days of the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions as I write - the Democrats reserved the Pepsi Centre in Denver for the first four and the Republicans the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, for the remaining four that begin on 1 September - and so far the roof has not fallen in over either party. Hillary Clinton was all kissy-kissy and exuding pro-Obama fire and brimstone when she spoke on Tuesday night, as I knew she would be: she has no intention of jeopardising her career as US senator for New York, or the good chance she believes she still has, should Barack Obama lose in November, of securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2012.

It could be that, by the time you read this, her husband will have launched a kamikaze attack on Obama in his speech on Wednesday night - or Republican prayers might have been answered and a tornado will have struck the huge open-air football stadium that he immodestly chose to deliver his acceptance address the following evening (just as JFK did when he gave his acceptance speech from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum rather than the convention venue next door - geddit?).

But I doubt it very much. American political conventions become interesting only if things go wrong and fights break out; the Democrats' first two days were hardly organised like clockwork and sometimes deteriorated into a shambles, but that was merely business as usual. To sit through a day of one of these conventions is stupefyingly boring: although television coverage gives the reverse impression, almost none of the thousands on the convention floors listen to a word spoken by perhaps 95 per cent of the speakers, who nonetheless plough through their big moment as though the world were on tenterhooks.

For the remaining 5 per cent or so of speakers, it is the precise opposite. Each night at least one over-rehearsed, overprepared, over-coiffed and over-choreographed man or woman will dominate the proceedings with an autocued speech to which everyone (including a coast-to-coast television audience of 20 million) listens intently. Michelle Obama played that role competently on the Democrats' first night - but her performance suffered from the artificiality engendered by overpreparation (I wish the Obamas would stop using their daughters as props who supposedly spontaneously shout cute things to their mum and dad - fully miked and right on cue).

Meanwhile, the newly appointed Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, "choked up" when he spoke to delegates from his home state of Delaware - choking up being obligatory for all American politicians when the appropriate chance arises. Even what should have been a truly moving moment - surely the last appearance on a convention stage by Ted Kennedy - seemed choreographed and mawkish, alas.

The divisive issue never far from the surface in Denver, though, was Obama's choice for the vice-presidential slot of Biden rather than Hillary Clinton. Nobody should underestimate the depth of the fissures that started to divide the Democrats as soon as the 2008 primaries turned nasty and it became apparent that the Obama campaign was masterful in disguising its dirty tricks, and it will take a lot more than a gracious speech or two to heal the underlying wounds.

Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York, dropped by in Denver and said it was a "no-brainer" that Obama should have chosen Clinton, given that their primary season tussle ended in a virtual dead heat and that, in the end, more Democrats probably voted in the primaries for Clinton than for Obama himself. Clinton, too, always had stronger credentials for the general election in November: she was a consistently better performer in the crucial battleground states, and had cornered the votes of the poor working class and women.

An Obama-Clinton ticket would have meant overcoming deep personal animosities, but there is a tradition of presidential candidates and their running mates loathing each other: JFK and LBJ hardly spoke, and there was no love lost even between Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. Biden can bring some of the pluses to the ticket that Clinton would have brought - getting out the working-class vote, perhaps - and may even be able to deliver the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where he grew up, to the Democrats.

But Obama is taking a colossal risk by passing over Clinton in favour of Biden, who is perhaps the most notorious and gaffe-prone windbag in the Senate; the Republicans are already rubbing their hands with gleeful anticipation. John McCain will have tried to steal some of Obama's thunder on Friday by naming his own running mate (possibly the former governor Mitt Romney, a McCain apparatchik tells me) and then the whole circus moves north to Minnesota.

The Republicans, I predict, will put on an al together slicker show than the Democrats - providing another timely reminder that they and McCain are still very much contenders in this most engrossing of presidential races.

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.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

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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