Let us, first, imagine the scene. We are in London and the spring daffodils of 2009 are in full bloom. But the prime ministership of Gordon Brown, despite being less than two years’ old, is in deep trouble: the Tories are soaring past Labour in the polls, and it is widely assumed that David Cameron will be replacing Brown within a year. But in the space of a few days, 21st-century British politics is transformed.
Brown himself, though, had started to feel a glimmer of hope that his political career might yet be resuscitated the previous November. He had stayed up all night on the first Tuesday of that month to watch the US presidential election results come in. Not long afterwards, he had flown to Washington in Blair Force One (the very notion of which he had once opposed, but he had quickly learned to love the trappings of prime-ministerial power) to pay Britain’s obligatory respects to the US president-elect.
But, in these unforgettable days in 2009, his dream is coming true: America’s 44th president is bestowing on him the unique honour of making an unprecedentedly early state visit to Britain, and has arrived to cheering crowds with her husband, America’s 42nd president, at her side. They are bringing with them a palpable, almost JFK-like aura of optimism from across the Atlantic: the stench of eight years of George W Bush in the White House is fast receding, and President Hillary Clinton has yet to complete her first 100 days in office. In Australia, too, a new Labor government is in power: we are in a post-Bush, post-Blair, post-Howard world of hope, after almost a decade of mounting despair. And, as he knows better than anybody, nobody stands to benefit more from this transformation than Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, James Gordon Brown.
OK, I must stop all these fantasies and come back with a thud to 2007 – and to what will follow the catastrophes wreaked by Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard. But I am more convinced than ever that the success or failure of Brown’s prime ministership will lie in Washington. I wrote in these pages as long ago as March 2005 that I believed Hillary Clinton stood a better chance than anybody to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, and logically would then be more likely than anybody else to become US president on 20 January 2009. I believe this to be the case even more strongly than I did in 2005.
But for Brown, there is potentially only a perilously brief window of opportunity to create a post-Blair, post-Bush world in Anglo-American relations. With Bush in office until 2009 and the Queen bound to call a British general election before June 2010 at the very latest (and by the way, thank you Ma’am for those delicious cucumber sandwiches at your garden party in Washington last Monday), Brown will have no choice but to deal with the Bush administration for most of his first (and last?) months as prime minister.
So how will Washington react to Gordon Brown as Britain’s prime minister? I doubt whether one in a thousand Americans have even heard of him; he met Bush for the first time, and then only briefly, last month. The more calamitous things get for Bush, meanwhile, the more he retreats into the bunker where he weaves fantasies that history will see him as a truly great US president; meanwhile Condoleezza Rice, notwithstanding her recent dialogue with Syria, is rightly earning her place in history as the shallow ultra-Bush loyalist that she always was.
Donald Rumsfeld is gone, Dick Cheney is permanently in disgrace and barely visible these days, and Bush’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, but American foreign policy under Bush – memorably summed up by Richard Armitage, his deputy secretary of state until 2005, as “Look, fucker, you do what we want” – will remain stubbornly unchanged until that far-off day in 2009. Brown’s cherished policies – eradicating world poverty and tackling climate change, for example – will, therefore, go down like lead balloons in Bushworld.
Having said all this, Brown’s relationship with America – and vice versa – is more complicated than these scenarios suggest. I will come to the potentially vital importance of Hillary Clinton and the Clintonistas to Brown in a moment, but must first explain how Brown has already passed muster (at the expense of David Cameron) with those on the American right, who care about US relations with spear-carrying allies such as Britain and Australia.
Brown is not just decidedly Eurosceptic – and that’s worth an extra mark or two already from the American right in itself – but he can now speak only American policy wonkese in a Scottish accent. His adoration for Cape Cod, and its supposed Kennedyesque glamour, knows no bounds. He even spent his honeymoon there in 2000. To Brown, America exemplifies the ultimate land of opportunity and efficiency, where hard work is always rewarded and laziness reaps its just desserts. When he set up his International Business Advisory Council last year, Brown’s American heroes, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Robert Rubin (Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary and now a director at Citigroup), Lee Scott (CEO of Wal-Mart) and Meg Whitman (CEO of eBay, no less) outnumbered British or other European businessmen and women on its 12-member council.
Brown also expresses undying admiration (“the greatest economist of his generation”) for 81-year-old Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, who presided over the boom-and-bust economy of Bill Clinton that led to the recession Bush inherited in 2001. I can personally attest that Greenspan’s secret of success is that nobody can ever understand a word he says, leading the more gullible to believe he is a genius. Brown is one of them – and remains transfixed by Greenspan’s gobbledegook, appointing him “honorary adviser” to the UK Treasury when he finally retired last year.
All of which tells the right here in the US much of what it wants to know about Brown, that despite having the dreaded “European socialist” label, he is actually a safely unwavering disciple of the ruthless present-day brand of American capitalism. So while Cameron has chosen the tactic of trying to pander directly to British public opinion by proclaiming that Britain should be “solid but not slavish” in its relations with the US, Brown has been assiduously wooing 75-year-old Irwin Stelzer – Rupert Murdoch’s very own ambassador in Washington (and one who is thus more powerful, I would wager, than any of Britain’s own ambassadors in the past two decades). The result is that while Cameron’s hints of anti-American populism are frightening off the likes of Stelzer, possibly permanently, Brown’s courting has now won his tentative blessing – and thus that of Murdoch, News Corporation, and much of what remains of the neocon right in Washington.
The likeable Stelzer, who divides his time between London and Washington, loves to express innocent amazement that people should see him as such a powerful king-making figure in the Anglosphere; but he is keeping Brown in shape by leaving him dangling, praising him for his admiration of “risk-taking, entrepreneurial America” one minute and dismissing him as “a redistributionist to his core” the next (a thoroughly evil and dangerous man, in other words). But he has already pronounced that Ed Balls should be Brown’s chancellor.
The Bush administration, therefore, will ultimately find Brown to be a man (as Bush famously said of Vladimir Putin) with whom it can do business – although I guarantee that Americans will always adversely compare Brown with his predecessor, who they have already all-but adopted as their own, much-beloved superstar. Blair will doubtless be unable to keep away as a result, and what the New York Times dismisses as “a TV soap opera mixing farce and venom” will thus continue to be played out on this side of the Atlantic too.
For Brown, though, all meaningful hopes for future Anglo-American relations now rest with the Democrats – and with the Clintons in particular. Brown’s roots with the Democrats go deeper: he first met Bill Clinton in 1991 when Clinton was the little-known governor of Arkansas, and subsequently forged close bonds with what a senior Democratic friend involved at the time describes to me as “all the Rubin crowd, all the [Larry] Summers crowd”. He is particularly close to Stan Greenberg, the co-founder of Democracy Corps, who has served quietly as political consultant to international politicians ranging from Nelson Mandela to Blair to the Clintons to Ehud Barak to Gerhard Schröder. Sid Blumenthal, the political journalist and erstwhile White House adviser to Clinton, is another pivotal figure in Brown’s quest for influence in Washington.
Back in those early days of transatlantic Third Way reconstructionism, in fact, it was Brown rather than Blair who was seen by the Democrats as the chief intellectual progenitor of new Labour. “Blair bonded with the Democrats on the politics, Brown with the policies,” says my Democrat friend. As a result, he adds, Hillary Clinton “knows [Brown] well and likes him a lot”; the Democrats, whoever should assume the presidency in 2009, “will welcome him with open arms”. But he adds an ominous note for Brown: “Don’t forget we went through the same thing with Al Gore [as putative successor to Clinton], who comes across as the same kind of abstruse figure. It’s hard to follow a great communicator.”
There are so many imponderables ahead in American politics, though, that it is hard for Brown to create any more meaningful plans for relations with Washington than to keep in with the Third Wayers and the Stelzers. Senator Barack Obama is making inroads into Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, though he is less squeaky-clean and youthful than his much-cultivated media image suggests – he is 45 and if he becomes president would be older than Teddy Roosevelt and JFK when they took office – and I suspect his campaign will implode long before election day, which will leave former Senator John Edward as the only credible Democratic alternative (unless Al Gore makes a dramatic last-minute entry into the race, which is not entirely inconceivable).
Meanwhile, the Republicans, in the words of a veteran strategist, “are so dispirited I don’t think we can recover”. Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani remain the frontrunners, but I predict (again with that qualification . . .) that both will fade. The obvious alternative then becomes Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a closet liberal Republican who has flip-flopped dramatically to the right in time for the Republican primaries. He is telegenic, articulate and ultra-smooth. But he is also a Mormon, which does not go down well in middle America.
The Hillary Clinton camp believes – and don’t forget, you read it here first – that the Republican candidate might well therefore end up being Fred Thompson, a right-wing senator for Tennessee until he stood down in 2003. Thompson has yet to declare he is even considering running, but last month made the curious announcement that he is suffering from a mild, treatable form of lymphoma – exactly the type of thing a politician planning a presidential campaign does, getting the bad news out first (as Obama did when he confessed to having used cocaine). Thompson has the prime qualification, too, for anybody running for political office these days: he is, literally, an actor who has run parallel and successful careers in movies, politics and DC-based lobbying. He therefore has all the requisite professional skills to look presidential, especially to voters who prefer the idea of a strong white man as their president rather than a woman or a black. Don’t laugh or write him off yet, Mr Brown.
The jokey scenario I conjured up for London, in spring 2009, the waves of optimism from a post-Bush US, remains the best dream for Brown. But my Democrat friend – who is assured of a place in any Democratic administration – believes it is by no means impossible. Indeed, at the Queen’s garden party last Monday I told yet another very well-known Clintonista about the scene I was envisaging and he jubilantly responded: “What makes you think we’d wait until the spring?” But because Bush and Blair have wrecked their respective countries’ foreign policies and created such intense hatred towards the US and UK across vast swaths of the world, the variables are such that there are infinitely bleaker possible scenarios.
The loony right here is still determinedly beating the drums for war against Iran, for example, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (after a shaky start, in his case) have made it clear that US policy towards the Middle East would not change under them. Not long ago they even held rival receptions on the same night at AIPAC, the immensely powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby. So might Islamic extremists decide to test the will of a new US administration – especially one headed by a woman – by launching 11 September-type atrocities in, say, Tel Aviv or Washington or London? Or all three?
We might switch on our radio that spring morning in 2009 instead and hear something like, “The prime minister said this morning that Britain fully supports the United States, following President Clinton’s decision to launch nuclear missiles at Iran last night in retaliation for the February terrorist attacks”. In the wake of the international and domestic chaos Bush will leave behind him, anything is possible. Enjoy Blair Force One while you can, Mr Brown.