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What a strangely iconic image this is. As Gordon Brown’s British Airways jet lingered on the runway at the US airbase in Maryland, a quick-witted photographer pounced and sold the image to Getty. Within minutes it was all over the internet ahead of Brown’s White House meeting with Barack Obama.

There’s a voyeuristic element in the photo’s composition. Brown looks slightly vulnerable but he also manages to wear a bad-tempered expression. It pretty much sums him up.

I had fun writing the story up for Mirror.co.uk, but one witty comment on the Guardian website says it all:

“When I asked for concealer I meant for the last 10 years, not the wrinkles on my face.”

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The buzz surrounding Chuka Ummuna, Labour’s 30-year-old prospective candidate for Streatham, is remarkable given that he’s not even a professional politician yet. His name must be one of the hottest Google searches of the moment judging by the number of hits I get relating to a tiny article I wrote on him months ago.

 

Chuka took a break from his legal work last Friday to come and tell our politics class at City how he handles the pressure of people’s expectations, what drives him and how it feels to be compared to the US president. The first thing that struck me was how well a good dose of litigation prepares people for politics. At a glance he reminded me not of Barack Obama, but a grittier talking Tony Blair.

 

He kicked off explaining how important he thinks it is to be able to go ‘off message’ and break with the party line. “For any Labour politician doing that after 10 years in government, it is quite a challenging thing,” he admitted, referring to the element of dutifulness that will inevitably encroach on his public profile if he wins Streatham. But he quickly went on to demonstrate his ability to deliver cutting comments by taking a sideswipe at ‘identikit’ politicians:

 

I think the problem we’ve got is there are politicians who aren’t idealistic at all, even when they’re young… A lot of people muck around doing student politics, then go and work researching for an MP, then go to work in a think tank, then think they’re ready to step up to Parliament.

 

So for them, it’s a career.

 

He wouldn’t be drawn when David Miliband’s name was mentioned, insisting: “I am talking across the board”.

 

I think it’s quite easy to get warped by the environment in which you are working. In the Blair era, if you even dared to think about certain things you’d be treated like you had committed a gaffe…

 

People now tend to talk as if they’re managing the big ship UK PLC. Maybe it is partly that we have, in a way, allowed ourselves to become part of the Establishment.

 

When the unavoidable question came up, Chuka said it was “extremely flattering” to be compared to Barack Obama but emphasised, “I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to him”. He also said race isn’t something that makes him self conscious.

 

Being mixed race, I can operate in any environment, but I don’t walk into a room and think, ‘I am the only black person here’. It’s not something I generally think about. When you open your mouth people tend to be interested in your ideas rather than what you look like.

 

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At the moment he’s juggling a full-time job and gearing up to fight for the Streatham seat at the next election. “I’m trying to meet as many people as possible,” he said, “so I can communicate what I want to do in the community.” In a sense he echoed David Cameron’s call for a return to localism when he described the Streatham community as the starting point and focus of his urge for politics. He added:

 

Do I feel the pressure? It would be spectacularly awful if I didn’t get elected. If I couldn’t live and work for Streatham, I don’t think I would want to go anywhere else.

 

Throughout the chat Chuka’s delivery was impressive and he struck a relaxed pose lolling on one of the university’s cheap plastic chairs. It was hard not to feel fired up when he described the UK political landscape as “going through a real moment” and when he said it was “an exciting time” for young people with the drive to effect change.

 

It was only when I went back through my notes that I realised how careful he’d been in everything he said. He managed to provoke some strong reactions – and agreement – while avoiding pinning himself down to much detail. I think that was what brought back the memory of a young Blair before the travails of war and office soured his idealism.

In a shameless attempt to boost my search engine rankings, here’s an insight into some of the weird online meanderings that have led people to my blog over the past few months.

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‘Gordon Brown’s eye’ has to be the most bizarre search, which led people to my very first blog post on Gordo’s glass eye and increasing blindness in his functioning eye. It was inspired by a Telegraph story claiming the PM needs things printed in 36 point font.

‘Daily Mail bigots’ was the next quirkiest one – I’m saying nothing – closely related to searches for golliwog-related material.

Another popular search was ‘Hackney gangs’, which took readers to an article I did ages ago.

Overwhelmingly though, Labour rising star Chuka Ummuna was the most searched for guy. It says a lot about his appeal that, despite not even being a politician at the moment – he’s a lawyer, about to stand for Streatham at the next election – people are already going crazy for him online. It’s another element to his early story that’s bound to prompt more irritating comparisons to Barack Obama. He’s coming in to chat to our politics class at City next week, so watch out for a longer Chuka-related focus piece then.

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The Sunday Times definitely trumped the rest this week. Grace Mugabe showed it’s not just D-list celebrities who can lose their temper with photographers after apparently lashing out at a Sunday Times snapper; Margaret Beckett found herself in hot water, echoing Baroness Vadera’s strife earlier in the week by saying she could see signs of recovery in the housing market; and Roman Abramovich has reportedly been getting bored with the giant train set that is Chelsea, and is trying to offload the club to Gulf investors.

The Observer went with the fragile Gazan ceasefire and a story about the ‘rise of mixed-race Britain’ which claims, among other things, that “some distinct ethnic groups – starting with Caribbean – will virtually disappear” according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Essex University.

The Telegraph’s front page follows the twists and turns of a financial week that saw 25 per cent wiped off the value of Barclays shares in an hour with news that the government could put up to £200bn of toxic debt on public books. The Mirror and the News of the World plumped for the joys of Boy George and Jade Goody respectively, while the Mail on Sunday had a similar £200bn toxic debt story to The Telegraph and suggestions that naughty Tesco staff have been posting rude comments about customers on the net.

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Clearly the mother of all stories lurking behind the small fry is Obama’s ascension to the White House, commanding double page spreads a-plenty and dominating the comment pages. Andrew Rawnsley notes the hubristic nods to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in Obama’s pre-inauguration whirlwind but points out that if ever there was a time to set pessimism aside, it’s now. On the Independent’s newly reworked blogspot John Rentoul amusingly points out that the communist Weekly Worker magazine has already branded Obama the world’s number one terrorist. There’s also chat about the Tories’ resurgence in the polls – they’re up nine points to 42 per cent, according to ComRes – and Andrew Grice rounds off last week’s political coverage with a mention of the Commons’ attempts to censor TV footage of a heated exchange involving John McDonnell MP.

Martin Ivens is taken up with the (quickly becoming interminable) topic of Ken Clarke and his possible return to the shadow cabinet. He aptly compares the prospect of a fourth Labour term as another series of an increasingly dreary sitcom.

My personal pick of the week goes to Ruth Sutherland in the Observer for a piece suggesting the credit crunch was the result of testosterone driven patriarchs high in the glittering towers of Canary Wharf and Wall Street, and looking at the effects of the downturn on women – who she argues will be hardest hit. Just when you thought every possible angle had been taken on the recession, up pops the old gender divide.

Finally, Frost/Nixon is out at the end of January and promises to be a timely look at the only president whose calamitous exit from the White House can rival Dubya’s shambolic departure.

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Western leaders love a good challenge when they’re new to office. That’s what you have to hope looking at today’s front pages, which are dominated by images of destruction in the Gaza strip.gaza1

The death toll rose past 280 people after another Israeli airstrike this morning, according to Hamas. The Guardian reported infantry and tanks moving towards the Gaza border in anticipation of a possible ground invasion. Rhetoric across the Israeli political spectrum has been bellicose ahead of February’s elections, with defence minister and former PM Ehud Barak declaring: “Now the time has come to fight.”

One of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s few unequivocal achievements was the Good Friday Agreement, pushed through partly thanks to their youthful vigour and self belief. The infamous Parliamentary malcontent Enoch Powell once darkly declared that “all political lives end in failure”; if that’s the case, it’s also true the greatest politicians take to office possessed of an unshakeable faith in their own abilities.

All eyes will be on Time Magazine’s man of the year when he finally moves into the White House. Bill Clinton and George Bush both launched half-hearted attempts to negotiate peace in the Middle East in the dog days of their presidency. Barack Obama’s advent will be the clearest juncture in years for the beleagured process to be given a hearty jump-start.

In a well balanced piece in today’s Sunday Times, Michel Portillo says the incoming president’s in-tray from hell could be the material he needs to fire his ambition:

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is, in a way, an attractive issue for Obama and his team. It has been evident for decades that matters cannot be resolved without the closest involvement of the United States… It could be that for once the Palestinian-Israeli problem will receive the full attention of an American presidency at the outset, at the moment of its greatest prestige and when its mandate is strongest.

One positive omen is the extent to which Obamamania has penetrated Israeli politics. Apparently the right wing Likud Party, which is tipped to win the largest slice of votes in February, has redesigned its website to mirror Obama’s campaign site and has even nicked his “Yes We Can” slogn, adding: “With God’s Help.”

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You can almost smell the cordite in the air. Mass briefings, new advertising campaigns and a striking Pre-Budget Report: an election is in the offing, and today the first salvos were fired.

Even the quickest flick through the Sunday headlines gets monotonous. The Observer went with “Darling to slash VAT and spark Xmas spree”, The Sunday Times said “Gordon brown to cut VAT as winter recession bites”, The Telegraph heralded the PBR as an ’emergency budget’, while The Independent said “Brown and Darling slash VAT in £18bn tax gamble”.

Last night’s Treasury phone bill must have been a whopper.

At the red-top end of the market, Gordon Brown wrote a piece in today’s News of the World declaring “I’ll give help when you need it”, and Alistair Darling similarly honoured The Mirror with an exclusive interview.

Before we get into the meat of it, there’s a telling contrast in the ads the two main parties are putting out. After so much chatter about the way Obama used web tools to sweep to US electoral victory, it’s refreshing to see Labour take a leaf from his script. Have a look at this electronic dig at David Cameron from the Labour website:

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Unusually for a political ad, it’s actually quite funny. On the other side of the divide, the Tories have dredged up the famous ‘tax bombshell’ ad John Major deployed against Neil Kinnock in 1992:

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It’s surprising to see the Conservatives harking back so clearly to Major’s beleaguered and recession-struck government, even if the poster did play a part in bashing down Kinnock’s 16-point poll lead at the time.

Darling’s PBR on Monday is expected to slash VAT to 15 per cent, increase the state pension by up to £5 a week and cancel tax hikes on car users and small businesses. It’s a festive swag-bag of goodies to woo that taxpayer that will cost the Treasury £18bn. So what next?

In April, Britain takes presidency of the G20 and world leaders – including Barack Obama – converge on London. This is the earliest point Gordon Brown could realistically call an election. This week a former Cabinet minister told The New Statesman that “Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election”.

Keen not to be seen cashing in on the economic crisis, the man himself told BBC One that “I am not thinking about that at all”. Cameron told Andrew Marr that “I am ready for an election at any time”. A great vignette from Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column:mandelson

Peter Mandelson was on fine form at a drinks party at Millbank last week. The Business Secretary made a few eyes pop out on stalks by openly declaring that the general election would be on 10 June next year, the same day as the local and Euro elections. After savouring the effect this had on his listeners, he then gave us a pantomime wink. “That was a joke,” he twinkled.

One thing is for sure – timing is everything, and if Brown fluffs it as he did last autumn he will certainly forefeit the premiership. The Independent’s Alan Watkins thinks a spring election is on the cards if the polls tighten a bit more. Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist Matthew D’Ancona thinks Tory ranks are rattled by the prospect of an election, but believes the Conservative top brass is expecting Brown to play long and go for autumn 2009 or spring 2010. In The Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson thinks Brown and Darling’s PBR is a huge error and calls on Jeremy Clarkson to save the country.

For me, the man of the moment has to be big beast and former Chancellor Ken Clarke. If I were George Osborne, I’d be looking over my shoulder with some concern.

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Since the London bombings of July 7, 2005, Britain has become a more troubled, less confident and harmonious country.britishjihad

So begins the introduction to this autumn’s Granta Magazine. In a comprehensive article entitled ‘The Rise of The British Jihad’, BBC journalist Richard Watson says Western democracies have been “disastrously slow” to realise where the battle lines are drawn in the fight against internal networks of extremists:

M15’s warning about the dangers posed by extremist ideology has come too late… [But] few within the security services [now] doubt there will be another murderous attack in Britain before too long.

Transatlantic rumblings are beginning to suggest Barack Obama could face an early test from Islamic terrorists in his vulnerable ‘transition period’ into the White House. Following an article in The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, yesterday’s Times warned of a “huge threat” to the president elect in his first days:

Security officials say that there is genuine concern that al-Qaeda will attempt a ‘spectacular”’in the transition period… Many Muslim [extremists] are intrigued by Mr Obama’s arrival in the White House.

In the Los Angeles Times, Sebastian Rotella says Obama will face a third war against stateless terrorist cells which should engage his administration’s attention as much as Iraq and Afghanistan.

An early strike would certainly test the new president’s mettle in the harshest way. So far, 31 of Obama’s 47 appointments have been drawn from the ranks of Clintonites. While Bill Clinton’s administration was a formidable election winning machine, it’s rarely remembered for its foreign policy achievements.

spectatorawardsAnother man facing down a threat from within this week is George Osborne.

After presenting Peter Mandelson with Best Newcomer at the Spectator Awards earlier in the week – what a delicious moment that was – Osborne took to the Andrew Marr Show this morning for what turned out to be a very defensive interview about his job prospects and his sterling doom-mongering in The Times.

Blinking rampantly and looking a bit like a puppy who’s been on the receiving end of a hearty slapping, Osborne repeatedly dodged Marr’s question as to whether he thought his role as Shadow Chancellor was tenable.

You get the feeling his answer was tilted towards the older guard in the Tory ranks who apparently harbour some pretty venomous feelings for him:

David Cameron and I work the whole time on economic policy, not for the next few weeks but in the run up to a general election. We are working as a team but it is not the David and George show, that’s a misunderstanding of the way we work. We have a very strong team in the shadow cabinet.

The lady doth protest too much, I think. There’s a good news article covering the interview on Politics Home.

At the most cynical end of the commentariat, News of the World man Fraser Nelson gives Osborne eight days to reedem himself:

I hear he was even thinking of writing a book recently. I wonder what the title was: “How to lose a 20-point poll lead in four weeks?”

I now know at least THREE Shadow Cabinet members who are openly talking about a new Shadow Chancellor.

Andrew Rawnsley thinks for Cameron to dismiss Osborne would be “madness”. “He [Osborne] is trying to see 18 months ahead,” Rawnsley argues. “That makes the Shadow Chancellor smarter than those Tories who want to toss him overboard.”

 In The Sunday Times, Martin Ivens is as mystified as the rest of us by Gordon Brown’s Jekyll and Hyde transmutations on the economy and Baby P.

 Against the flow of news and opinion, The Independent’s Alan Watkins still reckons Good Ship Cameron is cruising to an easy electoral victory:

Mr Brown has been revived temporarily by a shot of bad news in the arm. The Tories are still favourites.

That should set Dave’s mind at rest.

 Finally, there’s a book coming out this week that promises tantalising material a-plenty for anyone hugo_younginterested in politics.

The Hugo Young Papers: 30 years of British politics off the record is a compilation of the legendary journalist’s off-the-record chats with some of the biggest players in the establishment, up until his death in 2003.

Alan Rusbridger wrote an affectionate portrait of the man in yesterday’s Guardian along with some snippets of what to expect. Apparently, Young’s conversations with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson circa 1994 are all going to be aired for the first time.