Friday 22 May 2009

22 May 2009

Here’s a really stupid question for you: Is there any big difference between George W Bush and Barack Obama?

This is how it looked to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd a couple of days ago, as she imagined a conversation between former vice-president Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

“You’re running national security now and everyone knows it,” Rummy says. “You got Obama to do an about-face on the torture photos. He’s using our old line about how it would endanger the troops. He’s keeping our military tribunals. His Justice Department invoked our state secrets privilege to try to get that lawsuit on torture and rendition dismissed. He’s trying to stop any sort of truth commission, thank goodness. He’s got his own surge going in Afghanistan. He’s withdrawing from Iraq more slowly. He’s extended our secret incursions over the Afghan border into Pakistan.”

A clever piece of satirical writing? Of course. But like all satire, maybe it also contains a kernel of truth. The former White House legal counsel David Rivkin told me last night that Obama has now “bought into” the view that some of the Guantanamo detainees have to be treated as enemy combatants and will have to be detained indefinitely.

That’s not quite how the President put it in his typically eloquent speech at the National Archives Museum in Washington yesterday. (“The documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.”)

But when you look at the options he laid out for how his administration proposes to deal with the 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo (don’t forget: many more than that have already been released by the Bush administration), they don’t look very different from those adopted by Bush, admittedly under pressure from the US Supreme Court.

Some of the detainees will be tried in normal criminal courts; some will be tried by “military commissions” (although with greater rights for defendants and with no evidence admissible if it was obtained using “enhanced” interrogation methods); some will be released; some will be transferred to another country; and some, if they can’t be prosecuted because evidence against them has been tainted in some way, will be subject to a new legal framework, as yet undefined, but understood to imply indefinite detention.

But there are a couple of big hurdles he still needs to jump over. Like who’s going to take those detainees who are released? Members of Congress aren’t at all keen on telling their constituents that a couple of dozen of ex-Guantanamo detainees are about to move into the neighbourhood – and other countries don’t seem too keen either.

As with his U-turn over whether to release more photographs showing US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is coming up against the harsh reality of persuading the people he needs to persuade (military chiefs, members of Congress) to see things the same way he does. He prizes consensus, which is another word for compromise, but sometimes that means stopping quite a long way from where he’d hoped to get to.

So his supporters on the left are already disappointed. His critics on the right are suspicious, or dismissive, or both. There are already suggestions that he’s preparing to water down some of his health care reform proposals in the hope of reducing some of the opposition from powerful vested interests. If those suggestions are true, stand by for more unhappy Obama-ites.

None of this means that he is a bad man, or a bad President. Nor does it mean that he will not succeed in at least some of his ambitious plans for changing America. But it does mean that as plenty of people warned him before the election, governing is a great deal more difficult than promising.

Friday 8 May 2009

8 May 2009

I’ve had another one of my strange dreams (or should that be nightmares?). I was on the bus, and I discovered a plain brown envelope lying on the seat beside me. Inside was a sheet of paper with a memo on it, unsigned and undated. This is what it said:

“Alan: You asked for my thoughts about all the Leadership speculation. Given what seems to happen to emails these days, I’m doing this the old-fashioned way, and will have it hand delivered to your home.

1. You are ideally positioned. Everyone thinks you’d be good to take over if (when?) Gordon decides to go. You need to say nothing and do nothing that looks as if you are campaigning.
2. Your appeal is who you are and where you come from, not what your policies are. In this respect, you have what I call the Obama factor. So your strategy must be to say little but to act natural. Emphasise that you can empathise. (Not like some, huh?) But we’ll need to come up with a position for you on the Post Office thing.
3. If (when?) Gordon goes, you will face competition from at least Harriet, Ed Balls, David Miliband, plus maybe Purnell and Burnham. Hattie is the only serious contender.
4. Your appeal to party members should be simply: Who’ll get the vote out at the general election? Hattie, closely identified with Gordon and not naturally voter-friendly, or you? No contest … This is nothing like the deputy leadership election: this one matters.
5. When the time comes, we should encourage media coverage highlighting your own life story. We could get someone to do a “compare and contrast” between you and Boris. “A Tale of Two Johnsons”, you get the idea. (Orphan, council flat, Tesco’s, postman vs Eton, Balliol, Classics. By the way, do you have some good childhood pictures?)
6. Your campaign should be based on the simple idea: “Alan Johnson’s Labour party: back where we belong.” You need to draw a clear line between you and Gordon. Something like the new London Evening Standard campaign? “Sorry for losing touch”.
7. Get Hazel on board, once she’s cleared up this expenses stuff. She may have to do a bit of grovelling. Authenticity is key: a bit rough around the edges is good. (Warning: former Telegraph editor Charles Moore has been touting Johnson/Blears as a dream ticket since last year. This is not helpful, so we should not draw attention to it.)
8. On the subject of the Telegraph, you will have to come clean about expenses. So far, they seem to have nothing on you, but if there is anything – anything – that anyone can make mischief with, let’s get it out in the open now. And I mean, now.
9. Timing: the party conference is the ideal time to go for a leadership election. Hustings at conference, at which you say that if elected, you will immediately ask for the dissolution of parliament and go for a snap election in late October. Campaign slogan: Alan Johnson’s Labour: back in touch with the real Britain.
10. Tell Straw, Mandelson and Darling to stay out of the way. No one who could ever be called smooth should be allowed anywhere near you …
11. You apologise for past mistakes (ie Gordon!), you say you know Labour needs to start again – and you go for the Tories’ jugular on cuts, cuts, cuts. “Who would you rather trust with our schools and hospitals? Johnson’s Labour, or Cameron’s Conservatives?” It will be essential to hammer home that Johnson’s Labour is not Brown’s Labour (or Blair’s Labour!). But we must not encourage comparisons with John Major.
12. Did you know that Mike Smithson of is offering 7/4 that Brown will be be first of the three party leaders to go; 10/1 that you will be his successor, and has a 20/1 bet that you’ll be PM on 31 December?

I say: Go for it. But one last question: Are you sure you want it?”

Then I woke up and there was no memo, and no brown envelope. Even so …

Friday 1 May 2009

1 May 2009

Power is a funny thing, isn’t it? You can’t see it, touch it, or smell it – but you know soon enough if it’s not there.

So does Gordon Brown have power? In theory, of course he does. He’s the Prime Minister. But just look at what he’s been forced into over the past few days.

Settlement rules for Gurkhas? Defeated. New plan for MPs’ attendance allowances? Deferred. Titan super-prisons? Abandoned. National database? Ditto.

There was a terrible moment on Wednesday, right at the end of Prime Minister’s Questions. It had been a rough old session, and the PM couldn’t wait to get out of the chamber. As soon as it was over, he bundled up his papers and headed for the exit.

Then the Speaker announced: “Statement on Afghanistan: the Prime Minister.” To jeers from the opposition, Mr Brown turned on his heels and made his way back to the dispatch box. He’d clean forgotten that he had more business to attend to.

So let’s take it as read that, in the elegantly understated words of Peter Mandelson, “it’s been a bit of a week.” David Blunkett said as much this morning: his message to the government, put blunty, was: “Pull yourselves together.”

But the question is this: Is it simply one of those Westminster squalls, that gets everyone in the village all over-excited and shiny-eyed? Or are we witnessing the slow but now certain disintegration of the Brown premiership?

I’ll leave the prognosticating to the BBC’s estimable political editor Nick Robinson and his Westminster colleagues. But I have been thinking back a bit.

Who remembers Alec Douglas-Home? He took over as Prime Minister when Harold Macmillan resigned in October 1963, and was defeated in the general election of October 1964.

James Callaghan? Took over when Harold Wilson resigned in April 1976, defeated in the general election of May 1979.

John Major? Ah yes, John Major. Took over when Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990, won a general election in 1992, and stayed in office until he was defeated by Tony Blair in May 1997.

So Mr Major was the exception, even if his 1992 election victory seemed both at the time and thereafter to be an aberration. For much of the following five years, he gave the impression, in the words of his one-time chancellor Norman Lamont, of being in office but not in power.

Gordon Brown knows his history. He knows all this much better than I do. That’s why, I suspect, he was so tempted to call an election in the autumn of 2007. He knew that with a mandate of his own, he’d have real, lasting authority. But he bottled it.

So his backbenchers no longer do his bidding. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life ignores his wishes. The president of Pakistan cancels a joint press conference with him.

In June, there are local and European parliament elections. I do not expect joyous results for the Labour party. In July, the full details of MPs’ expense claims will be published, and the Westminster rumour mill is already churning red-hot with talk of forced resignations and by-elections.

On the other hand … there are some little green shoots appearing across the Atlantic. US consumer spending was up 2.2 per cent in the first three months of this year; savings were up as well, and prices rose by 2.9 per cent year on year. In the current economic climate, that all counts as good news.

And if the US recession is bottoming out, it may just be that we won’t be far behind.

Even so, if you were to ask me to bet on Mr Brown still being Prime Minister this time next year, I think I’d plead extreme poverty and head for the door.

Oh, and by the way, the World Health Organisation says we shouldn’t call it “swine flu” any more. It’s “influenza A (H1N1)”. What’s wrong with the “new flu virus”?