James Forsyth

The new battle in British politics is how to be most like Obama

James Forsyth says that both Brown and Cameron are mesmerised by the new President, who will be the lodestar of political life in this country. The contest to lay claim to his policies and style has begun — the risk being that our leaders are found sorely wanting by comparison

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James Forsyth says that both Brown and Cameron are mesmerised by the new President, who will be the lodestar of political life in this country. The contest to lay claim to his policies and style has begun — the risk being that our leaders are found sorely wanting by comparison

David Cameron and Gordon Brown would not be human if they had not felt a little jealous on Tuesday night. They will never give a speech like Barack Obama or draw a crowd as big as his. To rub salt in the wound, Obama had just achieved — without knowing it — what they have spent their adult lives trying to do: he had reorientated British politics.

Obama is the new lodestar of our politics. He is — at least for now — the arbiter of where the centre is, what is good policy, what’s in and what’s out. After years in which a cheap shot at the American president was the easiest way to get a round of applause on Question Time, effusive praise is now the order of the day. The new President is, after all, box office: newspapers that usually avoid politics clear the front page for him, glossy magazines venerate him as the Celebrity in Chief and books on and by him — unlike their British counterparts — dominate the bestseller tables in bookshops. He has gripped the public’s imagination in a way that no leader has since Blair.

Across the political spectrum — from tax-cutting Tories to those on the left who want to revive Labour through grassroots campaigning — Obama is the vehicle used to advance agendas. He has become the kite-mark of politics.

Britain’s political class has always had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to America, regarding US politics as both sexier and more consequential than our own. Both British parties go on scouting trips to the US and return obsessing about the latest idea. The Potomac flows so far up the Thames that the 2005 Tory leadership election was dominated by the trading of lines and ideas from Bush’s 2000 election campaign and Gordon Brown’s conference speech last year was built on the rhetorical foundations that Obama and Hillary Clinton had laid down during the Democratic primaries.

Ambitious Westminster politicians like to mimic the American trappings of power as seen on The West Wing. At the Labour conference in Manchester, David Miliband, who was then a rising star, was accompanied everywhere by a West Wing-style entourage. On the Tory side, the quick-witted policy banter of George Osborne’s staff sounds like it could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin.

When John Spencer, who played the White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry in The West Wing, came to London during the Blair years he was invited to Number 10. Spencer later told a reporter that ‘I had British politicians coming up to me saying, “I don’t want to gush too much but I think meeting you could be one of the greatest moments of my life.”’ Obama, being real, has had an even greater effect on them.

President Obama’s hold over British politics comes from the fact that both sides desperately want to claim him as their own. Normally, American presidents belong clearly to one British party or the other — Clinton was Labour, Reagan Tory. But the new president could be either. If Obama was clearly Labour, two cabinet ministers wouldn’t have bothered to post blogs on inauguration day vehemently denying that the Tories had anything in common with him. Equally if the similarities between his agenda and the Tory one were self-evident, Cameron wouldn’t have had to rush on to the radio straight after Obama had finished talking to point them out. For this side of the Atlantic, Obama is a centrist and so he pulls both sides towards him.

If both sides can lay claim to Obama in policy terms, they can in personality terms too. If you are a Tory, Obama is like Cameron in that he represents the passing of torch to a new generation; Obama moves politics beyond the culture wars of the baby boomers and Cameron banishes the arguments of the Thatcher years. They are both open, modern family men with stylish, professional wives. Labour folk can point to the fact that Obama is, like Brown, an author and an homme sérieux. (Though, if one was being catty, or displaying that British inferiority complex, one would note that Dreams of My Father is a far better book than Brown’s Courage, that being president of Harvard Law Review is more impressive than being rector of Edinburgh University and that the first black president is a far more dramatic turning of the page than the election of Britain’s 20th Old Etonian prime minister would be.)

Psychologically, it is important for both sides to think that Obama is in their corner. For Labour, worn down by 11 years of government, Obama being one of them is proof that they are still the party of progress. Obama’s support would reaffirm Bridget Jones’s dictum that ‘it is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for the principle of sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela’. For the Tories — especially the younger ones — a connection to Obama is proof that they are no longer the nasty party but are now the party of future. He also offers reassurance that a novice can steer a course through the ‘raging storm’ of the present. Those Tories who were in Iowa, Denver and at the inauguration were as swept along in the moment as anybody else. Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, even flew specially to Washington for the inauguration and then straight out again.

The intensity of both Brown and Cameron’s desire to claim Obama for their cause was on full show when he came to London in July. Brown, whose leadership was at that point under threat, was desperate for a charisma injection from Obama. Protocol dictated that Brown could not greet Obama on the steps of Number 10 as he had not met the Republican nominee John McCain there when he came to pay his respects earlier in the year. So instead there were photos of Brown — visibly straining to impress — and Obama together in the Downing Street garden and on Horse Guards Parade. A video was shot of a slightly startled Obama paying tribute to the Prime Minister, which was then used as the highlight of the film introducing the leader’s speech at the Labour conference. Cameron, meanwhile, tried to play the generational card. He gave Obama a selection of his favourite music and rushed out a web video with him gushing about the meeting that was heavily promoted via Google ads. The Tories were privately delighted that a cameraman’s microphone accidentally picked up some relaxed but supposedly private chit-chat between the two men. However, the spin over who was on better terms with Obama didn’t end there. A New Statesman story in December claimed that Obama thought Cameron was a ‘lightweight’. The Conservatives were relieved that the Obama camp moved quickly to crush this speculation, which seems to have originated in Whitehall rather than Washington.

Since being sworn in, Obama is no longer merely the most popular politician in the world, he’s also the most powerful man on earth. The desire to be linked to him is now stronger than ever.  Labour hopes that Obama’s support for a fiscal stimulus will turn the tide in Brown’s favour in this country. In his New Year interview, the Prime Minister was explicit about this, ‘What people will see is an [Obama] administration that is preparing a major fiscal boost, a major stimulus package both now and for the future. I think it may change people’s minds over what is happening in other countries as a result, particularly in Britain.’ (Ironically, if the Obama stimulus plan succeeds in dragging America out of recession before Britain, it could actually hurt Brown’s economic reputation by giving the lie to his argument that the problems have come from America and that Britain is uniquely well placed to get through this crisis.) Before Christmas, Geoffrey Robinson, among others, was urging Brown to go for an Obama election straight after the President’s visit to Britain in April for the G20. The images of the Prime Minister and the President together — Moses and Jesus at the transfiguration of Watford — are seen as being just as important to Brown’s prospect of a second revival as the Budget in March.

On the Tory side, Obama’s call for a ‘new era of responsibility’ in his inaugural address was instantly seized on. They pointed to how close this is to Cameron’s talk of social responsibility. Meanwhile, Osborne’s team (two of whom were in Iowa last January to watch the Obama campaign in action) draw on the same principles of behavioural economics that Obama’s domestic policy team use.

So keen are the Tories to tap into the Obama zeitgeist that a whole slew of them, including Francis Maude and Nick Boles, who are charged with preparing the party for government, and Osborne’s chief of staff, Matt Hancock, went to Denver for the Democratic Convention. To present your policy as inspired by Obama is to say it is wise, modern and bound to work. 

Obama will undoubtedly influence domestic policy in Britain. But his influence on foreign policy will be far more direct. Already, thousands more British troops are set to be sent to Afghanistan in response to a request from Obama. Initial plans to send only a few hundred more appear to have been shelved after the government realised that there would be as much of a link between troop contributions and Oval Office visits under Obama as there were between campaign donations and nights in the Lincoln bedroom during the Clinton years.

Far more dramatic than Afghanistan, though, could be Iran. Obama is in favour of direct diplomacy with Tehran. But Hillary Clinton made clear at her confirmation hearing that the incoming administration shares the Bush view that an Iranian bomb is ‘unacceptable’ and that ‘no option is off the table’. Of course, what we don’t know is which the new administration regards as worse: a nuclear Iran or bombing Iran. But there is reason to think that it might well be the former: a nuke would transform Tehran into the regional hegemon and create a nuclear arms race in a critical and unstable region of the world.

It was always highly unlikely that having seen what Iraq did to Blair, Brown would have backed Bush over a strike on Iran. But under President Obama the situation looks different. There will be at least the possibility of persuading the public, and the Commons, that action is necessary. If Brown is not faced with this dilemma, Cameron might well be early in his first term. He would be forced to choose between criticism at home or jettisoning his chance of a seat at the table for the rest of the Obama presidency.

The problem for both Brown and Cameron is that sitting next to the Messiah is liable to leave you looking all too mortal in comparison. It’ll be all too easy for columnists to ask where our Obama is and carp that British politicians can’t orate or inspire like him. Our normally cynical press goes weak at the knees for Obama. But it will return to form by happily using him as a stick with which to beat Brown and Cameron.

For the next four — and almost certainly eight — years, Obama will be an off-stage presence in British politics akin to Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It will be Obama’s world and Brown and Cameron will just be living in it.