Is David Cameron the new John Major?

In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Opposition leader Ed Miliband attacked Prime Minister David Cameron: “He can’t convince European leaders, he can’t even convince his own backbenchers. He is weak abroad he is weak at home, it’s John Major over again.” But is this comparison fair to either Prime Minister?

1. Electoral success: In electoral terms, John Major was one of the most disastrous party leaders of the 20th century. He inherited close to 370 Tory MPs from Mrs Thatcher in 1990.  There were only 165 by the time he resigned as leader in 1997 with the party back in Opposition. On the other hand, Major was always significantly more popular with his public, than his party was. The same cannot be said of Cameron. Major did also win the 1992 General Election outright with a majority of 21. No Tory leader, including Cameron, has done this since.

2. Weakness/European division: Major famously dithered on Black Wednesday with disastrous effects for the UK economy in 1992. The Major Government ultimately totally disintegrated over divisions over Maastricht. This hasn’t happened to the Cameron Government yet even with the divisions between his party and the Coalition Liberal Democrats.

3. Veto: Both PMs saved their necks through use of the veto. Major saved himself from backbench disquiet by using the veto to reject a socialist politician as head of the EC in 1994, only for him to be replaced by an almost identical politician who subsequently attacked Major. Cameron’s much heralded veto over further changes to the structure of the EU in 2010, turned out to be a similarly empty gesture in practice.

4. Both PMs have tended to cling onto fatally weakened Cabinet colleagues for as long as possible, ultimately to their own detriment: Norman Lamont, David Mellor, Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell. Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, Major ennobled Lord Archer. Both leaders clearly have displayed occasional appalling judgement.

5. On balance: Major’s record, aside from the economy and initially Northern Ireland is disastrous. Cameron has only been PM for two and a half years, compared to Major’s full six and a half years. Cameron may prove luckier in his opponent Ed Miliband than Major was in Tony Blair.

There are nonetheless undoubtedly eerie similarities between David Cameron and his doomed predecessor.

October Surprise!

A look at nine last minute stories which (if they happened) could swing the US presidential election…

  1. Governor Mitt Romney is revealed to have taken part in a recent ceremony in which thousands of dead non-Mormons were baptised posthumously as Mormons. Embarrassingly, many of those listed as baptised included many people who were not actually dead who Romney assumed were dead (such as actress Angela Lansbury and Senator John McCain), several people who were clearly already Mormons and several fictional characters who Romney apparently thought were real people (Sherlock Holmes, Roger Ramjet, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Skeletor).
  2. Romney also admits switching the past votes of many dead Democrats to Republican ones, this changing the outcome of every presidential election since 1920 into a Republican victory. Former president Bob Dole defends Romney’s actions.
  3. The Romney campaign receives another blow when an hour long programme is broadcast featuring actor Clint Eastwood interrogating an empty chair which he believes to be occupied by President Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the actor appears to be won over by the chair’s arguments during the course of the programme and ends the show by endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign.
  4. Obama is revealed to be “following” Hugo Chavez on Twitter.
  5. Romney reveals he briefly hypnotised the President during the first presidential debate thus explaining Obama’s semi-comatose state throughout. Similar hypnosis largely explains the soporific effect Romney’s speeches have on many audiences.
  6. Secret plans reveal Romney intends to sell the state of Ohio to the People’s Republic of China if elected. “It makes sound business sense,” he argues. “There’s no money in Ohio. I’ve seen the projections.”
  7. In a speech, President Obama unwittingly reveals a major plot twist in the new Bond film Skyfall.
  8. Newly released wannabe Reagan assassin John Hinckley attempts to “impress” actress Ellen DeGeneres by assassinating Obama. Once again, he fails on both counts. Obama survives and like Jodie Foster before her, Ellen isn’t even slightly “impressed”. She is more “alarmed”. Women eh?
  9. In a surprise move, Great Britain is suddenly granted admission as the 51st state of the Union. With a firmly pro-Obama population and far more Electoral College votes than California, the change secures the re-election for the president.

The Mormon conquest?

“The history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

So sang Abba in their 1974 hit Waterloo. And they were right. 1907, for example, was virtually the same as 1894.

So what’s it to be then?

Which election of the past is this year’s presidential election most likely to echo?

Here are the main scenarios:

1948: The Truman Show: Shock result! Electoral upset!

The precedent: Every underdog in every election prays for a repeat of the 1948 result. President Truman was universally expected to lose to his Republican opponent, the ultra-bland moustached weirdo Governor Thomas Dewey throughout the campaign. One newspaper even reported “Dewey defeats Truman” on its front page. Yet the polls were staggeringly wrong. Truman was, in fact, returned comfortably. He even gleefully held up a copy of the inaccurate newspaper for the cameras.

Is it likely?: Actually with the election so close, neither a Romney or an Obama win would exactly constitute an electoral upset. So assuming neither candidate wins by a huge margin or something insane happens, this wouldn’t be possible. Especially as neither Truman nor Dewey are alive.

1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984: President re-elected in a landslide.

All of these elections saw the incumbents (Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon and Reagan) winning by huge margins. Nixon and Reagan both won 49 out of 50 states. Could Obama do the same?

Likely? This may have been possible when Romney was in a flap over his moronic 47% comments. But unless something dramatic happens between now and polling day (perhaps Romney will be revealed to have sold one of his elderly relatives to a powerful conglomerate) this now seems very unlikely.

1996: President re-elected comfortably but not by a landslide.

1996 saw President Clinton comfortably quashing Senator Bob Dole’s leadership bid by a 7% poll margin.

Likely?: Not too farfetched actually and probably the best result Obama can realistically hope for. Had the result gone the other way…Monica Lewinsky? And the 73 year old President Dole? Let’s not think about it.

2004: A narrow-ish win for the president.

Nobody likes being compared to George W Bush. But in 2004, he did beat Senator John Kerry by a three percent margin. And get this: he didn’t have to cheat this time!

Likely?: A narrow Obama win is currently the most likely result.

1976: A narrow win for the challenger.

After Watergate, the fuel crisis and the Nixon pardon, ex-peanut farmer Jimmy Carter achieved a very narrow win over the maladroit President Gerald Ford.

Likely: Horribly plausible. Romney could scrape home narrowly. And remember: Ford was also undone by a poor TV debate performance!

1980: A big win for the challenger.

The 1980 victory of Reagan over incumbent President Carter was decisive and seems inevitable in retrospect. In fact, it seemed much closer at the time. Carter’s diaries reveal he felt he had a good chance at winning almost to the end.

The result famously forced loon John Hinckley Junior to reconsider his plan to shoot President Carter and shoot the new president Reagan instead. All to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Who apparently wasn’t even very impressed anyway! Tsk! Women eh? Next time just try sending a bunch of flowers. Or stalking someone who isn’t a

Likely?:A Mitt Romney landslide? If you believe in a God, pray to him or her that this doesn’t happen.

The trouble with satire

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It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that political satire only tends to truly thrive under Tory Governments.

This has been true ever since the birth of the first modern satire boom of the early Sixties. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was all prospered during the dying days of the Tory regime of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home. Likewise, although rarely overtly political, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) enjoyed its true heyday under the government of Ted Heath (1970-1974). Then came Thatcher and Major. Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 coincided almost exactly with the birth of alternative comedy. But it wasn’t just that. Not The Nine O Clock News, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, If…, Dear Bill, The New Statesman, The Friday Night Armistice and Drop the Dead Donkey undeniably got a boost from their being a Tory Government in power.

Why should this be the case? Partly, it’s because true satire rails against the Establishment and the Tories embody the Establishment better than Labour ever can.

It’s also because, in general, right wing people tend not to be very funny. Lady Thatcher, despite inspiring great satire herself, famously had virtually no sense of humour. Boris Johnson’s buffoonery amuses but he rarely says or writes anything which is deliberately funny. Jeremy Clarkson, meanwhile, is quickly out of his depth in the world of politics (as opposed to motoring) and rarely gets beyond saying anything shocking or childish when he venture into the political arena.

The myth that the politically correct Left lack a sense of humour is ill founded. It’s actually hard to think of anyone funny who isn’t on the Left. Ask anyone for a list of funny right wingers, meanwhile, and most likely their list will solely consist of the obscure, the racist or the dead.

After the 2010 General Election something clearly went wrong, however. We now have a Tory Prime Minister again. So why are we not enjoying a new satire boom?

Part of the problem might be that because New Labour were arguably almost as conservative as the Tories, satire never really went away under Blair and Brown. The Thick of It owes its origin to these times and in fairness, is still great. But Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week are clearly past their best and 10 O’Clock Live has never really got off the ground.

I blame the politicians. Whereas in the Eighties, politics was filled with colourful characters ranging from the Bennite ultra-Left to the uncaring Thatcherite Right, the Blairisation of British politics has been fatal to satire. Blair was the most successful politician of recent times: little wonder everyone wants to be like him, elect a party leader like him and fight for the centre ground like him. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all essentially Blair wannabes: posh, PR friendly men in suits. Miliband would never wear a donkey jacket, Cameron would never drive in a tank. From a comedic point of view, this is bad news.

The Coalition confuses things further. Try as we might to pretend Cameron’s lot are the new Thatcherites, this is only partly true. They are occasionally uncaring, more often incompetent, sometimes liberal and, yes, sometimes actually Liberal as in Democrat.

The global scene doesn’t help. The idiotic George W Bush was satirical gold, just as President Reagan had been two decades before. But Barack Obama, an intelligent, moderate, slightly disappointing but well meaning black president is hardly the stuff great satires are made of as the failure of the novel O demonstrates. In this respect alone, perhaps Governor Mitt Romney would be better.

British politics seems to lack the colour of the past too. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the political set up. Take the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He is a decent man, yes. An exciting man? No. Trust me: I have seen him speak. And yet in the hands of Spitting Image, voiced by Harry Enfield, with his hairstyle strangely coiled, his puppet was frequently hilarious.

There is surely enough material in the current political class – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s eternal rivalry with David Cameron, Ed Balls, the never ending evil that is Rupert Murdoch – to inspire great satire? Perhaps it’s simply a case of “could do better, must try harder.”

James Bond vs Doctor Who

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Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was a total flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but not famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austen Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in year
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky, a bearded University drop out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend Geordie who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

Daniel Craig - New James Bond movie Casino Royale

Romney and Obama: the great TV debate

Tonight sees the first of this year’s debates between Romney and Obama.

Before we get too excited, let us consider a few key facts:

1. Whoever’s winning the election will probably win the debate…

Debates usually reflect the existing state of the campaign rather than deciding it. President Obama is comfortably winning the election so can probably expect to win the debate.

There are exceptions to this rule however: if as in 1960 or 1976, the race is very close. Nixon’s shifty appearance and President Ford’s confusion over the USSR may have swung the race in both cases. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry both easily beat Bush in the debates. Expectations were so low for Bush, however, that the debates felt like a victory for Bush who went on to win narrowly (in 2004 anyway). In 1988, Bush’s father managed to lose the first of two debates to Michael Dukakis but still won the election by a landslide.

But trust me usually the first place candidate usually wins the debate.

2. The Vice Presidential debates don’t matter 

From the 1988 Dan Quayle/Lloyd Bentsen VP debate…

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the — Woodruff: (Admonishing applauders) Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.) Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s “no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Senator Dan Quayle in 1988 is probably the finest moment in any national US presidential debate ever. But it didn’t help the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign which still went down to a hefty defeat.

3. There’s always the potential for a gaffe from either side.

Nixon’s anxious scowling at JFK during the 1960 debate. President George HW Bush glancing at his watch throughout his debate with Bill Clinton. Senator Bob Dole’s foolish labelling of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars”.

It is these potentially random factors which have the power to swing elections, which make the four yearly ritual of the televised presidential debates so compelling.

The hardest job in politics

It’s undeniably the hardest job in British politics: Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The success rate is mixed. There have been nineteen Opposition leaders since 1945, by my count. Of these, only eight, including the current one, Ed Miliband never enjoyed a stint as Prime Minister, the others being Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. It should be noted four of the leaders who made it to Downing Street (Home, Callaghan, Major and Brown) had already been PMs before they, all fairly briefly, led in Opposition having lost General Elections. It should also be noted that while no British Prime Minister has died in office since 1865, two Opposition Leaders have died just in the last fifty years. Both were in their fifties.

The job is undeniably horrendous. It attracts few of the perks, publicity, status or kudos of the premiership but invites plenty of scorn. Opposition leaders are at an automatic disadvantage in Prime Minister’s Questions and in General Elections which the PM gets to choose the date of.

No one did better in the post-war era than Tony Blair during his three years as Opposition leader. Although he was undeniably helped by the fact, John Major’s government was clearly disintegrating before the nation’s eyes, Blair never put a foot wrong, clearly outflanking the beleaguered PM at every turn. No one has done worse, meanwhile, than the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith who “led” the Tories from 2001 to 2003. His appalling croaky Commons performances, lamentable radio interviews (he attempted to laugh his way through one notorious Today interview) and ludicrous conference speeches (“The quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume!”) soon saw him overthrown by the same disgusted party which had previously elected him.

Ed Miliband is happily doing much better. Early tabloid nicknames “Red Ed” never really stuck nor did claims that he was a sop to the unions (he has held a firm line on the unions since his acceptance speech). The charge that he was young and inexperienced (he was older than Cameron when both men became party leader and more experienced than Cameron or Clegg were when both became PM and Deputy PM) never stood up to scrutiny either. Polls suggest the public liked his bold stance against News International.

Indeed, unlike Cameron, the more they see of him, the more they seem to like him. Labour now commands a double digit poll lead over the Tories. With the General Election likely to be in 2015, the next two years will clearly be crucial for Miliband and Labour. After that, it seems only too likely Mr Cameron will be enjoying his second stint in Opposition.