Magazine article The Spectator

Clinton: Tony and Gordon Just Have to Work This Out

Magazine article The Spectator

Clinton: Tony and Gordon Just Have to Work This Out

Article excerpt

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 12minute 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-inchief. '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. …

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