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10 things you need to know about Newt: Mehdi Hasan on the Gringrich

He’s been married three times and his middle name is Leroy. But that’s not the half of things.

On 9 June 2011, Newt Gingrich's campaign manager and half a dozen senior aides resigned en masse, citing "differences in direction" with their candidate. Politicians and pundits queued up to declare his campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign "over".

Fast-forward seven months. Newt is now the only GOP candidate who can beat the front-runner, Mitt Romney, having won a decisive victory in the bellwether state of South Carolina on 21 January, amassing 40 per cent of the vote, and with polls showing him in the lead in the swing state of Florida. Some Republican voters are said to be excited at the prospect of bombastic Newt tearing shreds off Barack Obama, whom they hate, in the presidential debates.

“Conservatives . . . are saying, 'Let's nominate Newt because for four and a half hours of debates with Barack Obama - he'd be the best,'" one of America's leading conservative commentators, George Will, told ABC after South Carolina. "You're talking about giving a guy nuclear weapons for eight years perhaps."

So, just what should we know about Newton Leroy Gingrich?

1 His congressional career ended in failure
Newt is best known for having been Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1995 and 1999. Right-wing Republican voters adored his tax-cutting, welfare-slashing, anti-crime "Contract With America" and his shutdown of the federal government in 1995 and 1996. But it all backfired and he resigned in 1998, having failed to impeach Bill Clinton and remove him from office, and after one of the worst-ever midterm election results for the Republicans.

In a television interview on 22 January Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and one of the Republican Party's most popular figures, let rip against Newt's record. "He was run out of the speakership by his own party," he said. "This is a guy who has had a very difficult political career at times and has been an embarrassment to the party . . . I'm not saying he will do it again in the future, but sometimes past is prologue."

2 He has issues with ethics
One of the "embarrassing" episodes referred to by Christie relates to Newt's finances. During his speakership, a record 84 ethics charges were filed against him, and in 1997 he was reprimanded by colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives and ordered to pay a fine of $300,000. It was the first time in the 208-year history of the House that a Speaker had been disciplined for ethical wrongdoing.

Newt likes to claim that the charges were a partisan attack on him by opposition Democrats; yet the House voted against him by a margin of 395-28. It was a bipartisan decision - and the special counsel to the House ethics committee concluded that the man who now wishes to be president had violated tax law and lied to the investigating panel.

3 Family values aren't his strongest suit
One of the most remarkable features of the Republican race so far has been the way in which the party's voters, especially ultra-conservative, evangelical, female voters in South Carolina, have turned a blind eye to Newt's long history of infidelity. He is, after all, a serial adulterer. He cheated on his first wife with the woman who became his second wife, and on his second wife with his third. According to his former campaign treasurer L H Carter, Newt said of his first wife, Jackie (with whom he decided to discuss divorce terms while she was gravely ill and recovering in hospital from surgery): "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president. And besides, she has cancer."
Newt's second wife, Marianne, claimed this month in an interview with the Washington Post that he had asked her for an open marriage in which she would share him with his mistress. As Speaker, he had an affair with Callista Bisek, a congressional staffer, while he was trying to impeach Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. (A straight-faced Newt later claimed his infidelity was "partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country".)

Does such hypocrisy matter? "[Newt] believes that what he says in public and how he lives don't have to be connected," said Marianne Gingrich in August 2010. "If you believe that, then yeah, you can run for president."

4 He is the perfect demagogue
Newt's strategy for securing the 2012 Republican nomination seems to be a shameless replay of the party's infamous "Southern strategy", popularised by Richard Nixon - that is, exploiting the racism and bigotry of some Southern white voters, as well as their fears of lawlessness and "big government". So he angrily denounces Washington "elites" and the mythical "liberal media", fearmongers about the rise of sharia law, and still sees reds under Democrats' beds. (In 2010, Newt published a book entitled To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.)

At a debate ahead of the South Carolina primary, he attacked the CNN presenter John King for asking him about his infidelity. To loud cheers from the conservative studio audience, he said: "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."

Meanwhile, his constant - and factually inaccurate - refrain that Obama has put "more people on food stamps than any other president" helps conjure up negative images of a racial minority - specifically African Americans, as does his call for children from poor neighbourhoods to get jobs as janitors.

He is always keen to highlight the president's "otherness". He has denounced his "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world-view, has said that Obama is not "normal" and has declared that he does not want to "bloody [Obama's] nose. I want to knock him out."

5 He is the master of the U-turn
In 2004 the Democrat John Kerry acquired a reputation as a "flip-flopper", but the shoe fits Newt much better. Despite courting the anti-government, far-right Tea Party and claiming the support of Sarah Palin, Newt has backed measures that Palin-style conservatives say they despise: Obama-style health-care reform, comprehensive immigration reform, bank bailouts and subsidies for prescription drugs.

Over the past year, his very public U-turns and voltes-face have startled even the most cynical pundits. Take the war in Libya. On 7 March, Newt told Fox News that, if he was pre­sident, he would instantly and unilaterally "exercise a no-fly zone this evening", on the grounds that "slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable". Yet on 23 March, after Obama did precisely as he had suggested, the former Speaker switched his position. "I would not have intervened," he told NBC. "I would not have used American and European forces."

6 He is neither an insurgent nor an outsider, but the ultimate Beltway insider
Newt has spent four decades in Washington, DC as a legislator - and lobbyist. He first ran for Congress in 1974; he served on Capitol Hill from 1979 to 1999 and as Speaker for four of those 20 years.

Since leaving politics, he has "consulted" for various corporations and institutions, including the government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac, reviled by Republicans for playing a pivotal role in the sub-prime crisis. Gingrich, who initially claimed he had worked as a "historian" for the firm, ran a consultancy that was paid $25,000 a month by Freddie Mac in 2006.

The inconvenient truth is that he is a long-standing member of the Washington elite against whom he constantly rails. Or, in the words of the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg: "Gingrich has eaten from just about every trough imaginable inside the Beltway."

7 He makes George W Bush look like a peacenik
Neoconservative Newt pushed long and hard for a war with Iraq. Soon after 11 September 2001, he proclaimed that "if we don't use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster".

These days his focus is on Iran's nuclear programme, which he hyperbolically describes as a Nazi-like "mortal threat". He supports the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists and has declared that America has "to take whatever steps are necessary to break its [the Iranian government's] capacity to have a nuclear weapon".

He is more belligerent, more dangerous even, than Dubbya. President George W Bush appointed John "Bomb Iran Now" Bolton as his ambassador the United Nations - but Newt has promised to make Bolton his secretary of state.

8 He is not just a hawk but a chicken hawk
Ron Paul, the anti-war congressman and a rival of Newt's for the Republican nomination, has repeatedly called him a "chicken hawk". "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments . . . they have no right to send our kids off to war," said Paul during a debate in New Hampshire.

Newt got married at the age of 19 after his first year at university and quickly became a father; he then avoided the Vietnam war draft by staying on at college after his undergraduate degree to study first for an MA and then for a PhD. "Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over," he conceded in an interview in 1985, then added defensively: "Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made."

9 He is the Likud Party candidate
As a sop to pro-Israeli Christian evangelicals, Republican candidates have fallen over each other to pledge their unconditional support for the Jewish state, but Newt has gone furthest.

Interviewed by the Jewish Channel, a US cable TV station, last December, he sparked outrage in the Middle East by referring to the Palestinians as "an invented . . . people".

The Arab League described his comments as racist; the pro-western Palestinian Authority premier, Salam Fayyad, pointed out that "even the most extremist settlers of Israel wouldn't dare to speak in such a ridiculous way".

Newt has been a personal friend and ally of the Likud leader and current Israeli premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, since his days as House Speaker. "I see myself as in many ways being pretty close to Bibi Netanyahu in thinking about the dangers of the world," he said in the TV interview. "So I see a much more tougher-minded [sic] and much more honest approach to the Middle East in a Gingrich administration."

For tougher-minded, read "bloody", and for "more honest", read "one-sided".

10 He isn't a popular politician
Right-wing Republicans like him. The rest of America doesn't. A recent CNN poll found his approval ratings stand at minus 28 per cent.
After becoming Speaker, Newt quickly established himself as one of the country's most reviled public figures - and became an electoral liability for the Republicans. According to the US online magazine Salon, he was the target of an astonishing 75,000 Democratic attack ads ahead of the 1996 congressional elections. "The more most people see of him," concluded Salon's Steve Kornacki, "the less they like him."

Or, in the words of George Will: "All across the country this morning people are waking up who are running for office as Republicans, from dog-catcher to the Senate, and they're saying, 'Good God, Newt Gingrich might be at the top of this [presidential] ticket.'"

The party elite - politicians, pundits, pollsters - want Romney as the candidate; but the base, if the conservative state of South Carolina is anything to go by, wants Gingrich. "He will destroy our party," says the Republican congressman-turned-cable news host Joe Scarborough. "He will re-elect Barack Obama, and we'll be ruined."

So perhaps we should all root for Newt.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition