Road trip 2013: Cameron slams UKIP while Osborne pushes for northern benefit cuts

Mid-term season is upon us.

David Cameron has been on the warpath today, preparing for his long-awaiting mid-term speech with Nick Clegg tomorrow. The pair will announce the Coalition's mid-term review, show off about their achievements so far, and set out some future policies (likely to be the last ones the coalition campaigns jointly on, as we move ever closer to election season).

First up is his interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Matthew Ancona. The big quote from that is that Cameron seems not to be downgrading his political ambitions in line with his poll ratings, as he tells the paper:

So, to be absolutely clear. When he tells voters at the 2015 election that, if he wins, he wants to serve a full term as prime minister, he will mean it literally (not, as Tony Blair did in 2005, to connote “a couple more years”)? “Yes. Look, I want to fight the next election, win the next election and serve – that is what I want to do. I often say to Conservatives, stop complaining about the things we haven’t done, look at the things we have done and are doing. This is an enormous reform agenda and that’s enough to keep us all busy, so that’s how it stands.”

This is said with resolve. And his aides agree afterwards that the PM’s remarks signal a fresh clarity: a determination not only that his strategy should be successful, but that he is the person to implement it. Remember: thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, this translates into Cameron remaining in No 10 (the electorate permitting) until at least May 2020. That would mean matching Blair’s period in No 10 (10 years), approaching Thatcher’s tenure as PM (11 years) and matching the span of her party leadership (15 years). Cameron’s declaration also sheds sharp new light on the ambitions of those presently touted for the succession: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, George Osborne, Grant Shapps. Clearly, if the Tories win in 2015, Cameron has no intention whatsoever of waiting a couple of years and then retiring to his Lego and board games.

Cameron also took a Mail-pleasing stance on deportation, arguing with respect to Abu Qatada that:

I’m keen to move to a policy where we deport first, and suspects can appeal later.

Since the reason why Qatada wasn't deported was that British courts thought that there was an unacceptably high risk he would face torture in Jordan, it appears Cameron is basically cool with that. It's also unclear how he plans to overcome the massive hurdle of access of justice that comes from being tortured in an overseas prison while trying to appeal to the British courts. But moving on.

This morning, the PM appeared on the Andrew Marr show, where he annoyed much of the Tory right by doubling down on his assertion that UKIP contains "odd people". In this he is entirely factually accurate, but also sending a pretty strong signal to his own party not to hope for a merger any time soon. UKIP are, in Cameron's eyes, a party firmly on the fringe of UK politics.

Cameron also began firmly laying ground for Britain losing its triple-A credit rating, arguing that the interest rate at which Britain borrows is what we should be looking at instead. That interest rate is higher than fully 10 of the twenty countries whose rates are quoted by the FT, but it remains very low. That's got little to do with Cameron's leadership and everything to do with the reverse sovereign debt crisis the world has experienced for the last few years, so he ought to be safe for some time if that does become the new benchmark for success.

And throughout today, suggestions as to what might be in tomorrows speech have been leaking out. The Sun suggests more roadbuilding, The Sunday Times picks up on the idea of a single-tier pension, and the Telegraph reports that Osborne has requested lowering benefits in the North.

Tomorrow might be an interesting day if that goes ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad