Friday 28 April 2017

Playing chicken with Pyongyang

Let's see if, just for a moment, you can tear yourself away from the election campaign and avert your gaze from Brexit.

And then let's see if you can bear to consider the scarily dangerous game of chicken that's currently being enjoyed -- if that's the right word -- by political leaders in Washington and Pyongyang.

As you may recall, when President Obama sat down with Donald Trump following his election victory last November, the then president named North Korea as the number one foreign policy issue that would be faced by his successor.

Since then, Mr Trump has torn up the Obama doctrine of 'strategic patience' and replaced it with a doctrine that could be summarised as 'Don't you bloody dare.'

To which the North Korean response has been, more or less: 'Just watch us.'

Watch us test another long-range ballistic missile. (Sure, the last one blew up as soon as we had launched it but, hey, that's what tests are for.)

Watch us conduct another nuclear test. And then, Mr President, Bring It On.

None of this leaves me feeling very happy. As the security analyst Fred Kaplan of wrote a couple of days ago: 'A mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity -- fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two -- makes for a potentially lethal concoction.'

Between them, Kim Jung Un, his father and grandfather have ruled North Korea for nearly 70 years. That is quite an achievement for a modern dynasty, although admittedly, it's not quite as impressive as the Japanese royal family which claims a dynastic line going back more than two and a half thousand years.

The current Kim has no intention of being last in the line. And he is convinced that nuclear weapons are the dynasty's best guarantee for survival. After all, look what happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as soon as they abandoned their own nuclear weapons programmes. They are not examples designed to enable brutal dictators to sleep easy in their beds.

In a fascinating essay in Foreign Policy this week, the Russian Korea analyst Andrei Lankov wrote that North Korea's political leaders 'believe that without nuclear weapons they are as good as dead. That’s a disaster for the region, but a perfectly logical choice by the Kim family.'

Perhaps some of this is what President Xi Jinping of China tried to explain to Mr Trump when they had their cosy little chat over dinner in Florida earlier this month. Perhaps President Xi also tried to explain why China is not over-keen to see the end of the Kim dynasty just yet.

Imagine what a unified Korea would like like from Beijing. A staunch US ally, host to more than 20,000 US troops, on its border? An open, pluralist, capitalist democracy, on its doorstep? And if the Kim regime were to collapse in chaos -- perhaps as a result of economic melt-down caused by yet more international sanctions -- how many hundreds of thousands of desperate North Koreans would want to seek refuge in China?

When President Trump summoned all 100 US senators for a North Korea briefing this week, he left them distinctly underwhelmed by the clarity of his strategy. The (Republican) chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, called it 'an OK briefing.'

Sen. Jeff Merkley (Democrat, Oregon) said: 'We learned nothing you couldn't read in the newspaper.' Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Democrat, Illinois)  said: 'It felt more like a dog and pony show to me than anything else.'

But you know what? I was pleased. Despite all the bluster, the Trump administration seems in reality to be prepared to wait a bit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said as much on Fox News on Thursday: 'We'll wait as long as it takes.' Just don't call it strategic patience, because that was Obama's idea and was, obviously a Very Bad Thing.

Kim Jung Un is as ruthless and determined as Mr Trump is mercurial and unpredictable. One false move from Pyongyang and all bets are off. After the US president's decision to launch cruise missiles against Syria, and then to authorise a massive bomb strike against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, I just hope he isn't developing a taste for theatrical gestures involving terrifying amounts of high explosive.

For now, the official Washington position is that the US intends to tighten economic sanctions and pursue diplomatic measures with its allies and regional partners, including -- shock, horror -- via the United Nations. Let's hope it stays that way. The alternative is far too frightening to contemplate.

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.