Magazine article The Spectator

Giving Up Clinton-Lite

Magazine article The Spectator

Giving Up Clinton-Lite

Article excerpt


WHEN THEY met in the Oval Office last April, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair adopted an air of mutual bonhomie. It was six months before the American President was to face his electorate for a second time, and perhaps a year before the Labour leader's own hopes of first entering Downing Street.

They shook hands, engaged in jocular repartee, and provided a fitting example of that unusual chemistry between cousins for which pundits on both sides of the Atlantic had so studiously looked.

The 'synergy' between New Labour and New Democrat, we were told, was evident in every gesture, in each nuance of policy. It existed in the extraordinary similarity of approach and background.

Both were Oxford men, both were lawyers who had married lawyers. And each was a policy wonk prepared to coax the old liberal coterie of his party towards a more conservative centre; Mr Clinton later dumped 60 years of welfare prescribed under the New Deal, while Mr Blair said he would jettison Clause 4 and nationalisation.

Mary McGrory, the doyenne of Washington's political columnists, pronounced that a new special relationship had been born. Sidney Blumenthal, the American journalist who is perhaps the closest to this Democratic president, waxed lyrical in the New Yorker about Britain's Prime Minister-in-waiting.

Soon after Mr Clinton was returned to the White House in November, others took up the refrain. The young American ideologues who were leaving his employ were said to be considering new roles as advisers to Mr Blair.

At the head of the list was George Stephanopoulos, the wunderkind of Clinton's first four years, who was reported, in the British press at least, to have offered his golden services as a spin doctor for the final weeks of the Labour campaign.

Resolute denials from both Labour and the diminutive former Rhodes scholar with a proviso that he might watch from the sidelines - were merely greeted as proof that a deal had indeed been struck which neither side wished to jeopardise.

There was a symmetry to this, said the Blairites. Departing members of the Clinton administration would wreak revenge on a British government which had so undecorously backed George Bush in 1992.

And of course New Labour nas lata claim to exceptional connections in Washington. Jonathan Powell, during his time as a political counsellor at the British Embassy, established a chummy network of Democratic Young Turks only too eager to exploit a transatlantic empathy.

Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould had been regular guests since Governor Clinton first ran for the White House, and the latter was invited to observe the President's re-election this year. He dutifully wrote a lengthy piece for the Guardian on the lessons for Labour. There was even talk of restoring the fraternal party ties of the 1960s and 1970s when Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey would regularly commute across the Atlantic.

How quickly things change. Now it is New Year at the White House, the British election is only months away and the name of Mr Blair is rarely even muttered in the corridors of the old executive building, the powerhouse where the young Clinton acolytes burn the midnight oil.

The days of gladhanding in the Oval Office appear like a distant and gilded memory, as the pragmatic centrists of the second term set a course of priorities for the next four years.

The President has ruthlessly divested himself of almost every liberal in his Cabinet (beware, John Prescott) and is treading a careful path through the various minefields of Whitewater, the increasingly putrid scandal of Asian donations to his party and partisan attempts to place his wife, Hillary, in the dock. …

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