Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Memories from the 1979 general election

Political reporters are already complaining that Theresa May is not allowing them to ask questions as the election campaign gets under way. The following extract is from my memoir, Is Anything Happening? (Biteback, £20)

For the three weeks of the 1979 election campaign, I was one of the team of journalists on the Thatcher campaign bus. To be strictly accurate, I was on one of the two campaign buses, because we drove round the country in convoy: the candidate and her team in one bus, with the ‘reptiles’, as her husband Denis referred to us, following close behind. We got so few chances to interact with her directly that, after a week of steadily mounting frustration, the travelling press wrote her a letter, signed by all of us, begging for a chance to actually talk to her.

The first week of Thatcher’s campaign trail has been a success. Or rather it has achieved what it set out to achieve – plenty of pictures in the papers. So far, Mrs T has refused only two photographers’ requests: she does not enjoy kissing babies, and she very sensibly refused to hold a giant pair of scissors near her face. Smiling at cameras is one thing, talking to reporters is quite another. So far, we scribblers have had scarcely a ‘Good morning’ to call our own (The Observer, 22 April 1979)

One evening, close to midnight, our wish was finally granted, and we were ushered into her hotel suite for an impromptu press conference. The main issue of the day was her party’s taxation proposals, a subject on which the Financial Times’s political correspondent Elinor Goodman, later of Channel 4 News, was both impressively knowledgeable and commendably insistent. Eventually, proceedings were brought to a close after Denis, in an audible whisper, had muttered to an aide: ‘Who is that dreadful woman?’ ...

The 1979 Conservative Party campaign was a watershed: adopting techniques imported from the US, Thatcher’s handlers understood that what mattered above all was imagery. For the first time in British politics, the interests of the TV cameras were paramount. Hence, Thatcher cuddling a calf, Thatcher in a chocolate factory, Thatcher chatting to shoppers. We take it for granted now, but in 1979, it was a novelty.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Lustig Election Guide for Remainers

Suppose you are one of the 16,141,241 people who voted a year ago for the UK to remain in the European Union. How are you going to vote on 8 June?

Here is the Lustig Election Guide for Remainers:

First of all, repeat after me: 'The UK is going to leave the EU. I'll just have to get over it.'

But you do not have to give up. If you live in a constituency where the election result is not a foregone conclusion, you can still influence the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and therefore the likely shape of the UK's future relationship with the EU.

Suppose you're one of the 40% of Conservative voters in 2015 who also voted Remain in 2016. If you're happy with the way Mrs May is approaching Brexit, you'll probably vote Conservative again. If you're not, you may well consider switching to the Lib Dems.

There are nine seats, currently held by the Tories, where in 2015 the Lib Dem candidate was less than 5,000 votes behind. They are, in order of vulnerability: Eastbourne, Lewes, Thornbury Vale, Twickenham, Kingston and Surbiton, St Ives, Torbay, Sutton and Cheam, and Bath.

There are also 12 seats, currently held by the Tories, where in 2015 the Labour candidate was less than 1,000 votes behind. They are, again in order of vulnerability:  Gower, Derby North, Croydon Central, Vale of Clwyd, Bury North, Morley and Outwood, Thurrock, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown, Bolton West, Weaver Vale, and Telford. (All data courtesy of Election Polling.)

My guess is that relatively few Tory voters are likely to switch to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. (How's that for an under-statement?) Nevertheless, if you're prepared to take the long view, you may calculate that Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to survive much longer as Labour leader, that whoever comes next may well be more electorally credible, and that a stronger Labour opposition could have a significant influence on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Tactical voting is nothing new. On 8 June, however, tactical voting will not only influence some important constituency outcomes, but also how the next government reads the mood of the electorate. So even in constituencies where the outcome is not in doubt, an increased vote for anti-Brexit parties will convey a message to Westminster.

Mrs May has gambled that with the Labour party in disarray, and the Lib Dems almost invisible to the naked eye, she will emerge on 9 June with a lovely big majority, mistress of all she surveys, and unstoppable as she molds the country into her own image.

Although I do not for one moment think that she will be defeated, I am nevertheless reminded of Edward Heath, who in February 1974 called an election to answer the question 'Who governs Britain?' and received, much to his surprise, the answer 'Not you, matey.'  Prime ministers don't always get to dictate which question voters choose to answer in the privacy of the polling station.

So, bottom line: If you're pro-Remain in a marginal constituency, vote for whoever is most likely to win the seat and most closely reflects your own views, even if they do not represent your usual party choice.

If you're a pro-Remain Tory, stick to St Theresa if you think you can trust her, or switch to the Lib Dems.

And if, like me, you're in a constituency where both the Labour incumbent and the Lib Dem challenger are pro-Remain, consider yourself blessed. You're spoilt for choice. (There is, however, a strong argument for backing those pro-Remain Labour MPs who were brave enough to defy the party whip, on the grounds that we'll need as many of them as possible in the next parliament.)

A last word for pro-Remain Labour voters (two-thirds of all Labour voters) who may have been bitterly disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn: take a close look at your Labour candidate. If they make it clear that they're not a Corbynite,  consider voting for them. If they're fully signed up to the Corbyn/McDonnell/Momentum project, switch to the Lib Dems, unless by doing so you risk handing the seat to the Tories.

(If you want to get involved in cross-party anti-Brexit campaigning, by the way, take a look at the More United website, or the initiative by anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who's raising money to support candidates who pledge a 'full and free vote' on the eventual Brexit deal.)

It's daft to make predictions in the current climate, so I won't. But I'll join the International Federation of Hat Eaters if Mrs May is not still prime minister on 9 June.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Donald Trump: king of the flip-flops

Everything that follows was said by Donald Trump:  

'When you talk about currency manipulation ... they [China] are world champions.' -- Interview with Financial Times, 2 April 2017

'[China] are not currency manipulators.' -- Interview with Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2017

'I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.' -- press conference, 12 April 2017

'China has great influence over North Korea.' - Interview with Financial Times, 2 April 2017

'After listening [to President Xi Jinping of China] for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy.' -- Interview with Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2017

You get the picture. The president of the United States is a man who has redefined the art of the political flip-flop. According to one calculation, he reversed position on no fewer than six policy issues last Wednesday alone.

So here's the question: do you approve or disapprove? One interpretation of what he's up to is that he's learning fast -- and that the simplistic, shoot-from-the-lip stuff that served him well enough on the campaign trail is now being jettisoned in favour of a more nuanced, bipartisan, even globalist approach.

Mr Trump seems, however, to recognise that he's vulnerable to the charge that he's ripping up his promises by the barrel-load. On Twitter, which is where you find the 'real' Donald Trump (not for nothing is his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump), he insisted: 'One by one we are keeping our promises - on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations. Big changes are happening!'

He also claimed, for good measure: 'Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!'

I can't tell you how much better that made me feel.

And I think we have to assume that authorising the US air force to drop the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal -- the 21,000-ton so-called 'mother of all bombs' -- on a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan must have made Mr Trump feel a lot better as well. After all, he did promise to 'bomb the shit' out of the Islamic State group, so he probably regards this as one promise he has kept.

Perhaps, though, he's not learning anything. Perhaps he's just listening to different people. His arch-ideologue chief strategist Steve Bannon is apparently being pushed out of the inner circle, and perhaps out of the White House entirely, which is probably the best place for a man who once said: 'Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too ... I want to bring everything crashing down ...'

My suspicion is that what we're actually witnessing is a president who still doesn't have a clue what he's doing. This, after all, is the man who when he proudly described to a TV interviewer how he broke the news to President Xi that he had authorised a cruise missile attack on Syria used these exact words:

'I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We are now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen. And President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded. What do you do? And we made a determination to do it. So the missiles were on the way. And I said: "Mr President, let me explain something to you … we’ve just launched 59 missiles, heading to Iraq."'

Iraq. He said Iraq. And when the interviewer gently corrected him, he just shrugged 'Yeah, heading towards Syria.' As if he didn't know the difference. And didn't much care either.

Before he took office, Mr Trump told everyone who would listen that he expected to get on just fine with Russia but that the real enemy was China. Now, after less than a hundred days in the White House, it's exactly the other way round.

He was going to get rid of Obamacare, introduce a massive tax reform programme, and build a wall (sorry, a beautiful wall) along the border with Mexico. He has done none of it.

Good news? Bad news? Personally, I see no cause for celebration. The best that we can hope for is that the Trump administration may not turn out to be quite as bad as we feared at the start.  But I still regard the words President Trump as two of the scariest words in the English language.