Not long before midnight on Tuesday, a mood of dogmatic certitude overcame the throng of British MPs, ministers and journalists assembled at the traditional election-night party at the American embassy in Grosvenor Square. We knew that John Kerry had won, and dismissed with knowing contempt the warnings of our hosts — whose election, after all, it was — that it was far too early to tell.
A delicious report went round that shares in Halliburton, the construction company associated with Vice-President Dick Cheney, had crashed on Wall Street shortly after 4 p.m. local time, in reaction to the first unofficial exit polls. One lonely Foreign Office official, along with Bruce Anderson, the political columnist, challenged the prevailing mood. Mr Anderson’s right arm is in plaster, the result of falling down a flight of stairs at Westminster Underground station after lunch the other week. His left was still happily capable of holding a glass and, thus fortified, he accurately predicted victory for the incumbent.
The rest of us spent two or three carefree hours, while we imagined the consequences of a Kerry victory: rapprochement between America and the rest of the world; reconciliation between Tony Blair and the Labour party; the resignation of Mark Steyn.
Labour MPs and ministers, who had heroically swallowed their reservations about British government support for Bush during the presidential campaign itself, at last allowed their feelings to show. Denis MacShane, the Foreign Office minister, is a case in point. Last year MacShane issued a press release enthusiastically welcoming a Venezuelan coup d’état which briefly seemed to have overthrown the country’s President Hugo Chavez. A few hours later the coup failed, and MacShane, with equal brio, was welcoming Chavez back.
MacShane was in good form at the American embassy party, setting out in some detail and unmatchable eloquence how the Blair government could work with the incoming Kerry administration. Too much should not be made of MacShane’s understandable impetuosity: many of us went to bed, our hearts singing, dreaming of a kinder and gentler America.
We woke up to a Bush victory, an event of historic importance. The circumstances of George W. Bush’s 2000 triumph, won with a minority of the vote and secured through a probably illegal Supreme Court decision, conferred a doubtful legitimacy on his first term of office. This time George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been granted an unequivocal mandate from the American people to carry out whatever policies they like.
This is not altogether a bad thing. George W. Bush is now in a very strong position to put renewed pressure on Israel to press forward for a settlement with Palestine, and there are some indications that he is ready to do just that. The prospect of Colin Powell as the next ambassador to London, which was being mooted in senior Republican circles on Tuesday night, is a happy one. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s election will surely estrange the United States of America yet further from the rest of the world.
Most of the credit for this election victory goes not to the President but to Karl Rove, the Republican strategist known as Bush’s Brain. This sinister and unappealing individual met George W. Bush 25 years ago, spotted something everyone else had missed, and guided his unlikely protégé first to the Texas governorship, then to the White House and now to this famous second victory. It is a staggering achievement, and all British politicians will study Rove’s techniques with intense interest. This brilliant man has reversed the laws of political campaigning. Until Rove, conventional wisdom held that the key to victory lay with the suburban, white, middle-class voter. This was indeed the secret of Bill Clinton’s stunning victory of 1992, then copied by Tony Blair and his campaign strategist Philip Gould in 1997. Rove won this week’s election by rejecting this theory. He mobilised the Republican base, as I witnessed when travelling round the key swing states, above all Ohio, while making a film for Channel 4 in the weeks before the election.
Rove’s techniques are not nice. They are relentlessly negative. He operates through lies, smears and character assassination, mainly put out through incessant and extremely expensive TV ads. A key part of Rove’s strategy is to mobilise allies from civil society — for instance, the Churches of the Christian Right — hence the Republican focus on gays, abortion and stem-cell research. Above all, however, Rove extracted every last political dividend from the so-called War on Terror.
Here George W. Bush was able to rely on a second ally: Tony Blair. The British Prime Minister was the President’s answer to Senator John Kerry’s accurate and potentially deadly claim that America had become an international pariah. Tony Blair, alongside the Queen and the Pope, has joined the select fraternity of famous foreigners most Americans have actually heard of.
The most telling moment of an astonishing election night came when the reporter Michael Crick interviewed American voters in a Columbus bowling alley for the BBC election coverage. Here they were: a representative collection of the stupid, ignorant and frighteningly arrogant voters who had just decided the identity of the most powerful man in the world. ‘Who did you vote for?’ asked Crick. ‘For Blair and Bush,’ replied one Ohio man. As The Spectator went to press, the exact numbers were unclear, but it looked as if the result had been decided by no more than one or two percentage points. Tony Blair is entitled to claim that those points were his, and that he made the decisive difference in bringing about the Bush victory.
It is a strange position for a British prime minister. Barely one British voter in six wanted Bush back at the White House, yet Tony Blair assiduously set about helping him. He is entitled to call one chapter of his memoirs: ‘John Kerry: My Part in His Downfall’.
There will be many rewards for Mr Blair. George Bush is well aware of the sacrifices the British Prime Minister has made and the dangers he has run, not just with the British electorate but with the Labour party. (The President knew of, and tolerated, the panicky last-minute Downing Street approach to the Kerry camp through the mediation of Philip Gould.) George Bush will be careful to repay the favour. He knows how unpopular he is in Britain, and will be eager to help Tony Blair assert an illusory independence from the White House ahead of the general election.
‘Watch out for a carefully choreographed rift between Downing Street and the White House,’ says one strategist. ‘A suitable subject will be chosen, most likely the Kyoto accord.’ There will be no presidential pressure for Tony Blair to make embarrassing visits to Crawford, Texas, while carefully briefed articles by sympathetic columnists will soon start to appear disclosing ‘frosty relations’ between Tony Blair and George Bush.
It’ll all be nonsense, of course. Tony Blair often speaks privately of his place in history: no contribution has been greater than making the British people international collaborators in George Bush’s re-election to the White House.