Play Review: Limehouse

Politics and theatre have long fed off one another and the attempt to ‘break the mould’ of Britain’s two dominant parties has been turned into a rewarding tale at the Donmar Warehouse by Steve Waters. Inevtiably the parallels with today will be the focus, but this is secondary to a study of four fascinating and different personalities who came together in despair and tried to do something new.

The one-room play is set in the kitchen of David Owen’s eponymous Limehouse home that saw the four very different politicians come together to form the Council on Social Democracy in January 1981.

The conflict of background, values and ambition is clear and beautifully brought out by an impressive cast, most notably a sublime performance from Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins. Impressive wig work and rolling ‘r’ sounds make the transformation from The Thick of It’s Peter Mannion stay just the right side of the parody line. Allam has some of the best political lines about Europe and the fate of Labour and they are compellingly delivered but it is also the deft touches: the conflict between pure contempt and instinctive politeness when presented with macaroni cheese is a joy to behold in itself.

The problem with creating ‘a fiction based on real events’ is that the dramatic licence required for creating such a play does clash with reality. The fact that the events of weeks are truncated into one morning can make some of the characters’ changes of view seem more like unexplained handbrake turns than the tortured deliberations they clearly were, and that makes it hard work for Paul Chahidi and Debra Gillett as Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams.

Chahidi’s Rogers is the conscience of the piece that foreshadows the divisions, not just political but personal, that will follow with the creation of the Social Democratic party. ‘We will be hated, and rightly so’, he sadly laments.

The only performance that grates is Tom Goodman-Hill’s Owen. Although the shouting and stomping around may be an accurate portrayal of the former foreign secretary, they become a little tedious to watch. It is Nathalie Armin’s performance as his literary agent wife Debbie that yet again makes you think the wrong person in a couple went into politics. It is also a relief that the female character is not used simply as an explanatory vehicle for the audience.

Waters seems to be very much of the school of thought that history should be studied to be repeated rather than avoided, and the one totally superfluous moment in the play is a closing monologue from Debbie saying how relevant the story of a Labour party in crisis and a Britain crashing out of Europe is today. The audience should have been given enough credit to work that out for themselves.

In reality, just as with The Deal about the pact made between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant, this was the coda to a whole load of work that had been done in advance of that moment.

Waters’ strength is to not worry about the artistic licence being taken, but instead embrace it into a compelling drama, made all the better by the brilliant performances it generates from the whole cast, reminding us of the significance of these individuals and not just their role as guides for the future.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

A descent into caricature

Last night’s third and final presidential debate cemented Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status in an encounter that was depressing to watch for what it said about today’s politics and the likes of Donald Trump.

The headlines in America have focused on his answer refusing to commit to accepting the result. Having lived through Brexit, seen the triumph of the ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ school of campaigning, and the rise of a social media debate on both left and right that has no problem saying black is white, the Republican nominee reached for all the same conspiracy theories, attacks on supposed media bias and the smears of opponents that we are well familiar with.

Clinton had two very strong moments last night. The first was contrasting her thirty years in public service with the last three decades of Trump’s life, pointing out that while she was in the situation room as Osama Bin Laden was killed, he was presenting Celebrity Apprentice.

And the second was precisely getting to him crying foul on whenever he does not get his way, down to his Twitter rants when that very same show did not win an Emmy due to bias in the judges. Now, given Angela Lansbury has been nominated 18 times and never received a single award, I might be willing to accept the last one.

But, of course, the broader conspiracy theory stuff is designed to achieve two things: show that despite being a billionaire property developer from New York, he is not part of the establishment. Second, and more worryingly, it is about motivating some of the more extreme elements of society to get behind his campaign, unleashing forces most campaigns would reject.

There is no doubt Trump has improved across the three debates but he has ultimately been exposed across the 270 minutes of prime time television to the extent that, despite a strong first couple of segments last night, by the end he had almost merged into Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live caricature.

But while Paddy Power may already be paying out on a Clinton victory, her Brooklyn-based campaign team will be determined to ensure there is no complacency and for good reason. Clinton is now in the carrying-a-glass-vase-across-a-polished-floor phase of the campaign. One slip could be fatal. Although Clinton’s poll leads in the battle ground states are consistent, they are often in polls that have a margin of error of as much as four points.

Turnout, as ever, will be crucial. Expect to see repeated messages about how just a few dozen voters not turning out in a bunch of precincts could make all the difference.

Clinton’s campaign team will keep a tight discipline on where the money, surrogates and troops are deployed to ensure she crosses that winning post of 270 electoral votes, hopefully picking up a couple of additional states like Arizona and North Carolina from Obama’s 2012 result.

The advantage for the Democrats is that there are more possible routes to that victory line. For Trump, he has a few must-win states like Florida or Ohio that if he is not picking those up, there is no viable path to the White House.

Optimistically, this is where the lack of ground game from the Trump and his reliance on a Republican machine that is in reality more set up to defend the House and Senate will let him down

Pessimistically, we know that he has no trouble controlling the media megaphone – despite his claims of bias – and the one message he did get the better of Clinton on during the debate was the section on open borders and immigration. His hope is keeping the 2012 Romney voters and adding on those traditional post-industrial states with exactly the same sort of messaging that saw the Leave campaign win over Labour voters in their millions.

One thing last night’s debate confirmed is that he does not really know how to talk to anyone other than angry white men. From his answers on a women’s right to choose and the supreme court through to his only use of Spanish being to say there are a lot of ‘bad hombres’ in the country, Trump is unable to grow his voter pool enough.

In less than three weeks, this will all be over. Voting has already started in many states. Hopefully the result will be one Trump does not like but has to accept. Until then, we have to hope that the political unpredictability of the last two years has not made it all the way to determining the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

Eyes on the prize

The Democrats understand the power of the bully pulpit

—Hillary Clinton entered the Democratic presidential nomination race as the presumptive nominee, with huge poll leads, only to see a combination of attacks on her record, some campaign missteps and a rival senator able to mobilise the grassroots to take it all away from her.

That was 2008. And, despite the wobbles of recent months, it seems difficult to see how Clinton will not be her party’s candidate for next November’s election.

Clinton’s inevitability has been her strength and weakness. Last time it left the space for Barack Obama to be the insurgent. Her liberal rival, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has tried to make Clinton’s Iraq war vote the wedge issue that Obama did in 2008, but it does not have the same resonance now as before.

This time she has managed to find a more compelling argument for her candidacy, combined with strong debate performances, getting the better of the Republicans at the Benghazi hearings, and showing humour playing Val the bartender on Saturday Night Live to calm nerves and put herself in pole position.

She has also talked more about being the first woman president, which she seemed oddly reluctant to do at the start of her 2008 run.

What is clear from the Democrats is that having Barack Obama in the White House has reminded them winning does make a difference. It has provided the ability to shape the national conversation, and they want to keep hold of the microphone a little longer.

There is one thing for Democrats to reflect on and that is the lack of depth of their bench going into this election. We can debate their merits or otherwise, but the Republicans have more than a dozen candidates who think they are able to compete for the White House. The Democrats are already down to three before the first vote is cast next February.

It is true that Clinton’s candidacy has scared a lot of people off. No doubt Joe Biden as the incumbent vice-president would have had the best claim had she not run.

Indeed, the former Delaware senator and most famous Amtrak passenger, making the daily commute back to his own state, must feel personally aggrieved that he was never really spoken of as a successor to Obama, despite Biden serving his boss loyally and, on some issues, such as equal marriage, providing a welcome nudge to the commander-in-chief.

Had he jumped in during Clinton’s email-dominated summer then his candidacy might have had some traction this time. But, having run unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008, a third shot with a less than clear route to victory was best avoided.

This lack of depth is also partly because the Democrats have struggled to win enough governor’s mansions in recent years. One is the third Democrat still in the race, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, but the point of his candidacy remains unclear.

O’Malley won high praise as a modernising mayor and governor, was a key figure in the third way Democratic Leadership Council group, but he is not even carrying that flag in this race and it is difficult to see him lasting much beyond February.

None of this means that Clinton is able to take her victory lap just yet. The primary process means that Sanders could still chalk up early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, due to a combination of the process and his local appeal.

Deep down, however, Democrats know that Clinton has the best chance of keeping the Oval Office and recognise that, whatever their desire for America to be a country that will elect a self-defined socialist senator from Vermont the president, they know that just ain’t so.

The Democrats at least look like they have kept their focus on winning a general election, not just picking a candidate to make them feel good – something parties forget at their peril.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

It’s not logical, Jim

Sometimes things happen in politics to question one’s very sanity, the rules by which you have always thought things operate. One such moment is Donald Trump’s rise in America.

The night of president Obama’s re-election I wrote for Progress to say that surely now the Republican party would have to realise that there are not enough angry white men to win them the White House and they should probably stop hating women, gays, blacks and Latinos.

This was not exactly a stunning political insight, but one of basic maths. Now was the time for the GOP to moderate their tone on immigration, and stop getting into a core vote strategy on wedge issues such as equal marriage and abortion.

The right is normally far more ruthless about winning power than the left, so even if these were not positions they agreed with, they could at least agree the electoral benefit in moderating their tone to deliver a right wing agenda – much as David Cameron has done in the United Kingdom.

Sometimes political parties decide they want to make a point more than the traditional considerations of how to win an election such as picking a candidate with broad appeal, experience and policies to match.

Today’s Republican party has reached such a place, with the leading candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, making, by what would be the usual rules of politics, enough gaffes to see them back at their non-political day jobs.

Instead that very lack of experience, of playing by the rules, of campaigning in the traditional way seems to be the wind beneath their wings. GOP activists seem so mad at the current crop of Washington politicians that they are willing to think the unthinkable.

The only time America has selected a president without government or elected office experience it has been a war-winning general as in the case of George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant or Dwight D Eisenhower.

Logically between now and the conclusion of the primary season Donald Trump will make one insult too many and the Republicans will call on someone like Florida senator Marco Rubio to step forward and take the fight to Hillary Clinton. But as time goes by that moment still has not come despite the Trump gaffeometer being off the scale.

This whole article could be filled with offensive statements from the billionaire property mogul and reality TV star but let’s take just a couple of the most recent ones, namely that following the Paris attacks Muslims should have special ID cards, or that he heard thousands of Muslims cheering the fall of the twin towers – a claim rubbished by both media and politicians.

Voters are picking Trump because he is not the traditional political candidate, and moderate politics is failing to meet the challenge. Trump can promise to expel 11 million illegal immigrants, and questions of cost and practicality are irrelevant to those who are voting for him.

The establishment choice to beat Trump, Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the 41st and 43rd president has certainly failed to meet the challenge. The nature of primary politics is yet again skewing the field but even that fails to excuse the failure of the moderates on the GOP side.

The Democrats also flirted with the traditional left debate of principles versus power, but they at least seem to have come down on the side that thinks winning elections is better than losing them. True, Hillary Clinton is no shoo-in. No party has held the White House for three terms since world war two, other than Bush Sr in 1988.

But deep down, Democrats know that Hillary Clinton has the best chance of keeping the Oval Office in their hands and recognise that whatever their desire for the Vermont senator to be a credible general election candidate, he just isn’t.

The primary process means that Bernie Sanders could still chalk up early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where a combination of the process and his local appeal could provide a couple of bumps in the road for Clinton. But what this requires is for Team Hillary to hold their nerve and know that as the race goes on they will prevail.

So what if? What if the Republicans really do end up picking Donald Trump as their nominee? Surely, logic dictates he cannot win, that Hillary Clinton will be able to build a coalition of mainstream and minority interests to win the White House. But whoever said politics was logical.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

After Obama

In this article, I examine the names in the frame for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. 

November’s midterm elections in the United States generated bad headlines for the Democrats because the loss of the Senate means Barack Obama will struggle to get any legislative governing done in his last two years in post, short of wielding his veto pen on various Republican attempts to roll back his agenda thus far.

But the midterms also represented an organisational and talent setback at the state level that could make the 2016 fight a whole deal tougher for the Democrats, losing governor races in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. Indeed Democrats now only control 17 of the 50 states and none of the significant battleground states such as Iowa, Florida or Ohio.

That means fewer Democrat hands on the organisational levers of power and fewer politicians able to build a profile to be Obama’s successor.

Contrast that with the Republicans who have a bench of over a dozen governors ready to run for the White House.

The Democrat bench is much more dominated by former or current senators from Hillary Clinton herself to John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Al Gore.

With Washington politics having such a low standing with the public, the ultimate insiders of the Senate are always going to find it a tougher sell with the public.

As for sitting vice-presidents, prospects do not look good either. The bad news for Joe Biden is that when George HW Bush won in 1988 he was the first incumbent to win the White House in over 160 years.

And for Clinton – or any Democrat – history also shows that in seven of the last eight presidential elections the other party won after two terms of a president, with Bush the exception there too.

Historically Americans prefer governors, from Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan to Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush. Indeed no governor has lost a race this century. That is where the Democrats look weak.

The governors in the frame are: retiring Maryland governor Martin O’Malley but he could not get a Democrat elected to replace him; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper who was barely re-elected and Democrats lost the US Senate seat there; 76-year-old California governor Jerry Brown who ran and lost against Clinton back in the 1990s; or New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

The precedent of Obama in 2008 and John F Kennedy in 1960 as senators making it to the White House are not bad names to follow, but both faced challenges from GOP candidates who were even more Washington insiders – long-term senator and sitting vice-president John McCain and Richard Nixon respectively.

Although all the commentators think Hillary Clinton will win if she runs, this is to ignore not just her own loss to Obama in 2008 but the history of presumptive nominees often failing. Obama, Carter, Kennedy, McCain, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Mitt Romney were all in one cycle or another the underdog for the nomination they went on to win.

Even among Democrats who want Hillary Clinton to win there is no desire for a coronation.

And although there are various online campaigns, from New York mayor Bill de Blasio through to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the only candidate who has formally shown their hand is Navy veteran and former Virginia senator Jim Webb who has take the first step of an ‘exploratory committee’ to decide if he is formally going to run. This follows the standard candidate stuff of a worthy book launch and tour earlier in the year to raise his profile.

There will be different motivations for those who take up the challenge. First, there will be those who will genuinely believe they can win. And they can take some encouragement from the history of presumptive nominees – not least Clinton herself in 2008.

Second, there will be those who run not to win but because they are after the vice-president spot or a senior cabinet spot themselves. Given his experience, a good run and then dropping out to endorse the winner could likely see Webb end up as the next defence secretary.

As ever with political predictions, you never know what is around the corner and the commentator consensus in 2008 was that Clinton had a lock on the nomination. It will be that thought as well as the desire to finally break that glass ceiling of American politics that will be on her mind as she decides if she is ready for another run.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

Book Review: Hard Choices

How do you write a memoir that you want to be both a bestseller and yet not have any political hostages to fortune? ‘Relatively easily’ would seem to be the answer if you are Hillary Rodham Clinton whose new tome, Hard Choices, pulls the curtain back on her time as America’s top diplomat, even if some of the self-censorship leaves the reader wanting more.

This book does not reprise all her personal story; that task fell to her first volume of autobiography, Living History. Instead, this is more a foreign policy textbook full of facts and analysis of over 100 countries visited and nearly one million miles flown. It opens with the clandestine discussions that led to the former presidential primary candidate serving in the administration of her erstwhile foe. Although the challenges of the primary season are hinted at, they are not discussed in detail, in keeping with much of the memoir that seems to conclude that much is best not said at this time.

Clinton writes passionately about the rebuilding of America’s reputation overseas, the pivot to Asia, her personal pride in opening up Burma and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as her determination to use the bully pulpit of the post to promote women’s rights. There is enough policy detail and colour on how government works as well as anecdotes on everything from life on the road to pantsuits and scrunchies to keep the reader engaged.

However, while Living History did not give us any really new insight into her personal relationship with Bill Clinton, Hard Choices does not reveal much about her political one with Barack Obama. The line about them meeting to talk about her becoming secretary of state as being ‘like two teenagers on an awkward first date’ either does not speak highly of her adolescent years or glosses over the real nature of their relationship as victor and vanquished. Loyalty, not just to the 44th president but to his staff, is one of the hallmarks of the book. There are moments when disagreements are hinted at, but this volume is certainly a long way from the settling of scores or career-rebuttal of recent memoirs such as that by the former defence secretary, Robert Gates.

And that is the basic problem with this book. This is essentially the second volume of an expected trilogy. It is a well-written account of her time as secretary of state and a very impressive application to be president. But it does not have the whodunnit reveal at the end. You just know the story is not over, and the way the book is written makes you think that the author does not believe it is either.

Whether this bothers you will partly depend on your enthusiasm for Clinton to have another tilt at the presidency, and determine whether the gaps in the story are an understandable necessity or a frustrating example of political caution.

So, while there is much to commend in Hard Choices, we will just have to wait for the concluding volume, ‘Madam President’, to give us those candid insights you just wish there were a few of in this volume.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

A genuinely historic visit by President Higgins to Britain

The word ‘historic’ is overused but this week’s first state visit to Britain by an Irish president qualifies for that adjective and marks another step forward in the previously troubled relationship between the two islands.

The visit coincided with the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that Michael D Higgins said in his address to parliament ‘was founded on the cornerstones of equality, justice and democratic partnership’ and ‘was a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship.’

There is no doubting that the peace process that was delivered by Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, the parties and the people, has delivered real results and is an achievement that the former prime minister said this week ‘remains one of the most significant and remarkable moments of peacemaking in recent times. Even today, for all the challenges, it provides a source of hope and inspiration for peacemakers everywhere.’

Today politics in Northern Ireland is facing the same struggles as elsewhere: despite being the most politicised place in Europe the anti-politics mood applies to those in Belfast as much as it does in Westminster.

Tony Blair once described the peace process as a bicycle: you were constantly having to find ways to keep the wheels turning to move it forward otherwise it would fall over.

To that extent the work is never done. Challenges remais that require continued leadership from all sides. But that should not obscure the peace and prosperity that followed those sleepless nights in Castle Buildings 16 years ago.

Therefore the public statecraft represented by the reciprocal visits by the heads of state visits is the culmination of years of work by the elected politicians to find a way that means we can remember our history but not be trapped by it.

As Higgins said this week, credit should go to the Queen for having made her own trip to Ireland in 2011, including to Croke Park and the Garden of Remembrance, and showing that we can move beyond the past into a shared future

Some of that past was reflected in the fact that the morning after the state dinner at Windsor Castle it was not the president but another Irishman who made a number of the front pages: Martin McGuinness.

It is an image that will both confuse and enrage as the former IRA activist sits down to dinner in white tie and tails with head of state of the organisation’s sworn enemy. Progress, for that is what it was, can certainly look strange but beyond the flummery it was another step to be welcomed.

For so much of our past, the personal and political have intersected with tragic consequences. The fact that the Queen’s cousin was the victim of one of the IRA’s most audacious attacks was not lost on Higgins and it was for that reason that the Irish president made the visit to Westminster Abbey and acknowledged the memorial to Lord Mountbatten.

It was particularly pleasing that Higgins, the Labour nominee for the post of president, was the one who made this historic step. Labour in Ireland, like Labour in Britain, has been out of power too often but when in power helps the nation take great strides forward – as Higgins himself did as minister in the 1990s.

The Irish relationship is also a reminder that rows about immigrants coming over to take our jobs are nothing new, despite them in reality having been actively recruited as cheap labour, for example ,in the construction of the railways.

Ed Miliband rightly spoke after his meeting with Higgins of the ‘enormous contribution made by Irish people in Britain across art and culture, business, politics and indeed every area of British society.’

My own family came over from Ireland to find work in the 1920s and that is a story that will be familiar to many. Today the Labour Party Irish Society exists to ensure our shared heritage is a source of strength as we build on the ties that bind us still.

The party has a special place for the Irish in Britain – it is no accident that so many leading trade unionists and Labour parliamentary leaders, from Denis Healey to Tony Blair, can look to Irish roots.

We work to ensure those links remain strong and that support is mobilised at election time as we campaign for the Irish in Britain who have made that positive contribution to our country but now struggle to feel the benefits themselves.

Today the economic relationship can be seen in the simple fact that Britain exports more to Ireland that it does to India, Brazil and China. As the president said in his address to both Houses of Parliament there is much we have in common and much we can do together in the years ahead.

For Britain and Ireland this week’s visit mark a further step towards normalisation, mutual respect and friendship in a relationship that has been marred by prejudice, discrimination and violence. For that we should all be grateful.

This article originally appeared on Progress Online. 


Israel, Miliband, and the values that motivate him

Ed Miliband’s patron Neil Kinnock knows only too well from his own pre-election snub by Ronald Reagan that attempts by leaders of the opposition to ‘look prime ministerial’ by jumping on a plane and pumping hands overseas are fraught with danger. It is all the more perilous if they land in the middle of a major diplomatic crisis.

As the reluctant traveller starts a three and a half day trip to the Middle East, Ed Miliband will be well aware that this is a place that has seen even the most accomplished politicians get tripped up.

But he also knows there is also the opportunity to highlight a more personal issue: the values that motivate him.

The Labour leader’s visit to Israel and Palestine, therefore, has a number objectives, from the personal to the political, as his team tries to sketch out more about the Miliband the man and his potential as a prime minister.

Like David Cameron’s recent visit, domestic events have conspired to make this trip happen later than was intended, and it has certainly been a source of concern among the foreign and development policy community and beyond that the Labour leader has spent so little time discussing international affairs at home or abroad.

What we have seen during the delay is confirmation that John Kerry’s latest push for a process, let alone peace, is in serious trouble. The reasons for this are still the source of ongoing debate and the state department was quick to deny any suggestion that the Americans put the blame at the doorstep of the government of Israel, even if that was the logical conclusion of the secretary of state’s recent remarks.

The American envoy, Martin Indyk, is still trying to bridge the gaps between the parties and will have a joint meeting with both negotiators in a few days’ time. But for now we are back in a holding pattern with the international community at risk of splintering along the traditional factional lines absent a credible process to hold them all together.

For Miliband at least this does mean the script is one we are sadly all too familiar with: a repeat of the desire to see the justice and dignity of Palestinian statehood alongside a secure state of Israel, a call for the parties to return to negotiations and for both sides to refrain from any activity (code for settlement-building or violence) that would make that harder.

The Labour leader has talked movingly in the past about his Jewish heritage and the impact the Holocaust has had on his family story. It clearly is part of what shapes him as a politician even if he has had a more ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith. The visit to the kibbutz where his extended family are shows the best of those progressive values that shaped Miliband politically as well as the founding of the state of Israel.

However, that Labour tradition in Israel has taken a real battering in recent years as the party has sought to renew itself since the premiership of Ehud Barak and the failed Camp David negotiations all the way back in 2000. There will, therefore, be much in common to discuss when Miliband meets with the new Labour leader, Isaac Herzog, and much potential for a strengthening of that political alliance.

As for Miliband’s meetings with the current Israeli administration, it will be looking to ensure that he will have no truck with the boycott, divestment and sanctions agenda, while also stressing its belief in the existential threat that Iran still poses and a hope that the recent Syria vote is not a symbol of a Labour party that is going to be isolationist rather than interventionist.

On the Palestinian side, there will be appreciation that Miliband and Douglas Alexander, who is also on the trip, did not oppose the Palestinians’ moves for recognition at the United Nations and there will be a desire for that to be supported in the months ahead in the absence of a negotiated way forward.

As ever both sides will be looking for certain orthodoxies to be repeated and the media on both sides will be looking to jump on any deviation from the standard script.

But if Miliband is seen to be given access to the senior political leadership on both sides and handles such a complex issue competently, while also fleshing out more of his personal story, then the trip will have been well worth the effort.

This article first appeared on Progress Online.


Book review: At Power’s Elbow

Rows about spin, concerns about the centralising of decision-making and over powerful aides. Not a new book about Downing Street today but rather a detailed new volume that shows these rows are as old as the post of prime minister itself.

Indeed, within the first chapter is the first account of ‘an increasingly sophisticated public-relations operation’ under prime minister Robert Walpole in the early 18th century – which included bribery to discourage negative articles or control of the post office to prevent them from being distributed.

The authors cite Thomas Gordon and Nicholas Paxton as Walpole’s key aides in this media management, arguing that they pioneered the media monitoring and rapid rebuttal techniques later attributed to Tony Blair as they managed contemporary allegations of financial wrongdoing about the then prime minister.

Academics Andrew Blick and George Jones have put together a thorough study of all those who have served, in the title of the book, At Power’s Elbow.

They have clearly approached the project with much care and attention, and it is fascinating as history, although it is weaker on recent administrations. As the appendix shows, the authors have invested a great deal of time and effort into speaking to former No 10 aides, although this list runs out of steam at the Callaghan years.

Indeed the jacket photo of David Cameron and Andy Coulson smacks more of a publisher’s desire to make the book ‘current’ but also represents the weakest part of the content which is just a few thumbnail sketches of those around the current prime minister.

The strongest parts of the book look at the ways in which the office has coped with the severest challenges as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill sought to get the machinery of government to work in the most challenging of times.

It is also noticeable that the authors cite the Harold Wilson and Tony Blair governments as the most transformative of the centre of government, as reforming Labour administrations will always find themselves having to fight against the conservative instincts of the permanent machinery of government.

As the book notes, when the role of prime minister started, the Treasury provided the core of the prime ministerial staff, and the letterbox on 10 Downing Street still says The First Lord of the Treasury. Over the following 300 years that relationship has had its ups and downs, as both sides have argued over the significance of that title.

Prime ministers have always had aides, some who have been a force for good, and some not, as Damian McBride’s recent book has shown. But fortunately this book avoids one of the current trends which is to say all civil servants are noble and all special advisers are a corruption, and makes clear that, for all the hype about the individuals working behind the scenes, decisions are actually taken by the elected politicians.

With Charles Falconer’s appointment as transition adviser to Ed Miliband, there are some useful historical lessons, but if you are after a handbook for what to do if you find yourself at power’s elbow, then I would recommend Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli as a more practical guide.

But as a detailed study of the evolution of the office of prime minister and First Lord of the Treasury it is a useful reminder that, just as old episodes of Yes, Minister still seem topical today, so are the old arguments about a strong centre and the power of the premier in our governance.

This review was written for Progress magazine. 

Déjà-vu all over again: Middle East talks restart amidst low expectations

Déjà-vu all over again is an old John Prescott joke, but it seemed like an appropriate headline for my latest article for Progress about the Middle East, as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations sit down to dinner this evening in the ornate splendour of the eighth floor of the State Department.

Defying high expectations to provide Palestinians with the dignity of statehood, or Israelis with security and safety, is not going to be a challenge facing this latest diplomatic effort. Indeed, simply keeping the parties talking for longer than the short few weeks that the last abortive attempt managed in September 2010 will be seen by some as success. And that was before the tumult of the Arab Spring, including the chaos in Egypt and carnage in Syria. For US secretary of state John Kerry, success will mean resolving the core paradox between the negotiating room and the facts on the ground, keeping the process secret, and managing to keep the parties talking when the inevitable bumps in the road occur.

Secretary Kerry cannot be faulted for the personal vigour with which he has pursued this issue since taking office in January, working closely with Tony Blair. From Washington to Rome to Jerusalem, the two have repeatedly debated, discussed and decided how the old challenge of matching the aspirations of the negotiating room with the reality on the ground can be matched.

So what reason is there to believe this time may be different? The millions of Israelis and Palestinians, who would be the principal beneficiaries of any deal and who remain committed to a two-state solution but have lost faith in their political leaders, will not be sitting by the television waiting for a breaking news whoosh to indicate a deal.

That is no bad thing. Low-key talks, with the different parties not testing their ideas in the media, may well frustrate the media and those from the international community not in the room, but could probably be the best way to ensure the full potential of two viable states is realised.

Today’s meeting is therefore a welcome start. Only when we see the talks happening at a leadership level between prime minister Netanyahu and President Abbas should we start to think this isn’t just another episode in a long-running serial with a plot we’re all too familiar with. But in the meantime we should neither allow the cynicism of past failed attempts nor the weight of expectation to derail what will always be a very delicate starting point.

You can read the full article for Progress here