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Bill Clinton on Tony and Gordon

The former president, who is expected to play a starring role at the Labour conference, talks to Toby Harnden about the party: its future and its leadership contest

13 September 2006

5:10 PM

13 September 2006

5:10 PM

Little Rock, Arkansas

What can be done to bring order to a fractious Labour party? Inside Little Rock’s Alltel Arena, home of the Arkansas Twisters football team and filled with local Democrats greedily consuming mounds of deep-fried frogs’ legs washed down with vats of iced tea, the question was hardly a burning one.

It was a balmy evening and no one seemed much exercised by the travails of Tony Blair or the overweening ambition of Gordon Brown. Indeed, there was talk of nothing much beyond the borders of a Southern state still viewed by most of the rest of the union as a poor, illiterate cousin.

Except from one man. As he roared with laughter, signed autographs and waited with cheerful indulgence as clammy-fingered fans struggled to operate their digital cameras at the crucial moment, Bill Clinton was only too happy to offer his opinions on Labour’s future.

Clinton, who had arrived on stage to the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’, delivered a pitch-perfect 12-minute stump speech without notes before descending to commune with the crowd.

‘May I feel your arms around me,’ belted out Bruce, who was being given a reprise. ‘May I feel your blood mix with mine.’ Now 60, the kid from Hot Springs who went all the way to the White House did the first bit literally and, instinctive politician that he is, the second metaphorically for a few minutes shy of an hour.

‘I just want them to stay together, to decide what to do and keep the Labour party together,’ he told me as his Secret Service agents fought a losing battle to keep the sweaty mass of ordinary folks from engulfing him. ‘The political difficulties of the moment should not obscure for the British people the fact that this government has been good for their country.’

The question I had asked him was whether he had a message for Tony Blair. But the former US president chose not to mention the Prime Minister by name or to refer to his accomplishments in anything but general terms. But he brought up Brown unprompted. ‘You’ve got a great economy, better growth than America has and less inequality than America,’ he said. ‘Gordon Brown has been a great Chancellor of the Exchequer. They just have to work this out. You can make too much of the politics and too little of the substance. The point is that New Labour has served the British people well.’

Later this month Clinton is expected to be the headline act in another arena half a world away — the G–Mex Centre in Manchester. Four years after he left delegates spellbound at Labour’s party conference in Blackpool, he is being enticed back.

With the Conservatives having bagged John McCain for their October bash in Bournemouth, expect the transatlantic party relationships to begin to revert to their traditional axes of Labour/Democrats and Tories/Republicans — David Cameron’s criticism of Bush notwithstanding — after the Blair/Bush years.

Clinton’s Arkansas remarks indicate that he had already considered Labour’s future and concluded that it is Brown. Was the Chancellor worthy of the top job? I asked. ‘There’s no doubt,’ he responded. ‘I have known him since 1990 and I think he’d be a good prime minister.’

In fact, Clinton, then governor of Arkansas and considered a rank outsider for the 1992 presidential race, first met Brown in June 1991 at the Bilderberg conference in the Black Forest resort of Baden-Baden. By all accounts, the two clicked.

‘Late at night, a small group of us chatted for hours about the challenges of the 1990s — and about new ideas he and others had for a new generation,’ Brown wrote, with starry-eyed enthusiasm, 18 months later when Clinton was elected commander-in-chief. ‘Clinton’s “big idea” is the New Covenant, a unifying vision of America where there is such a thing as a society.’

In the intervening period, Brown — as Labour was still smarting from Neil Kinnock’s defeat at the hands of John Major — had travelled to the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden in New York to watch Clinton triumphantly accept his party’s nomination. He might have slipped with the exact year but Clinton’s mention of just how long he had known Brown was no accident. He did not meet Blair until November 1995, at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Essentially, Clinton is uttering the Brownite line, as expressed by Harriet Harman and others over the past fortnight: it’s Brown now; we’ve got a good record in government; let’s shut up and get on with things or else the Tories will beat us. Unspoken in this formula is the need for Blair to step down sooner rather than later.

Anyone as politically astute as Clinton knows that the manoeuvring and backbiting will not cease until Tony has gone. That will surely be what Clinton will advise in Manchester. Publicly, expect fulsome praise of Blair (particularly if he has already accepted the glass of whisky and the pearl-handled revolver), warm words for Brown and a heartfelt plea to move on.

But an underlying message will be to the wider electorate. As he put it to me: ‘When you look at the achievements of the [Blair] administration — the Gleneagles summit, the aid to Africa, the economy and all those things — it’s hard to argue with the proposition that the British people have been well served over the last decade.’

Plainly, Clinton disagrees with Blair on Iraq — although he has been gracious enough to acknowledge the bind the Prime Minister was in after the quest for a second United Nations resolution failed. ‘You know what I think about Iraq,’ he snapped when I asked him if Blair had done the right thing there. ‘I think the inspectors should have been allowed to stay in. You want me to say something that’s going to cause one hell of a stink back home.’

Though Iraq is ‘a bigger problem for the Republicans’, Clinton emphasised, he acknowledged that it threatens to split the Democrats, many of whom — including one Senator Hillary Clinton of New York — voted in October 2002 to give President George W. Bush authorisation to invade.

The squabbling, he feels, lets Bush off the hook. ‘I keep telling everybody that whatever you voted nobody is responsible for what happened afterwards — the tactical mistakes, the taking the eye off Afghanistan. But what we need to talk about is what we do from here forward and I just don’t want to see our party divided on this.’

I suspect that Clinton is sorely disappointed that Blair aligned himself so closely with Bush. He has still not forgiven Al Gore, squeamish about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for declining his formidable services on the 2000 campaign trail. Gore was following the advice of the Democratic strategist Bob Shrum — who, incidentally, has been telling Brown to distance himself from Blair.

Bush’s leaden address to the nation to mark the September 11 anniversary underlined what most voters feel: that he has run out of ideas on Iraq and is already acting like the lame duck he will become after the mid-term elections.

In this environment there is a wave of Clinton nostalgia across America and the former president is basking in the new atmosphere. Since his heart surgery two years ago, he has slimmed down and is a picture of rude health. But while his hair is now almost completely white, he still sees himself as a player rather than an elder statesman above the fray.

‘I try to stay out of politics,’ he fibbed to his Little Rock audience. ‘But the Republicans won’t leave me alone and I keep being dragged back in.’ Having never faced the challenges Bush has since 9/11, Clinton feels he was cheated of the chance to prove himself while president. So he is anxious to cement his legacy after leaving office.

Hillary is the major plank of this. Her aides say that he is more determined than she is to go all out for a Clinton victory in 2008. A danger for Senator Clinton is that her husband’s talents on the campaign trail are unmatchable, so she pales whenever they appear together. But Bill’s ability to raise funds and his encyclopaedic knowledge of America’s political landscape make him a political ally to die for.

For many Labour supporters, watching Clinton in Blackpool will be a reminder of what Blair could have become before the sincerity came to be seen as fake and the connection he had with ordinary Britons was severed.

Brown, dour at the best of times, will doubtless be overshadowed too. But most important for the Chancellor is that Clinton has the rhetorical talents and the charisma to coax Labour out of its self-destructive mood and smooth his path to No. 10.

That means Brown accepting from Clinton the Third Way torch that Blair once clasped. If Brown succeeds, then he will vindicate Clinton just as, perhaps, Hillary will do on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a deal that will suit both men.

Toby Harnden is Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Telegraph.

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