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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

Picture: David Parkin
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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

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