East meets Westminster: A plot to oust the PM? A good back story is not enough.
17:16 01 February 2013
When the now President Barack Obama emerged as the unlikely challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democrat ticket for the 2008 US election only a few gave him a real hope, writes Richard PorritT
But slowly his campaign grew. Now it has become the standard-bearer for all political assaults on power with staffers from the “Yes We Can” campaign sought-after figures to give speeches and pass on knowledge across the globe.
What was it that gave the Hawaii-born candidate the edge even though he was black and had a name strikingly similar to US enemy number one Osama Bin Laden?
Much has been made of his team’s utilisation of social media, of involving those who had not before donated to a political party and asking for just a dollar and the candidate’s soaring, beautiful, uniting speeches.
But there is something even more powerful – an aspect that cannot be taught to a political hopeful, a stroke of luck that these days – for better or worse – can be the difference between leader and also-ran.
Mr Obama’s background was the aspect that caught the hearts and minds of tens of millions of American voters and hundreds of millions more around the globe.
Today some of that shine has been battered away by the day-to-day grind of politics at the coal-face but Mr Obama’s story will always refer back to his childhood and the struggles he faced as a black American growing up in a country still scarred by racial divisions. Few – even his opponents – can deny his climb to power has been nothing short of miraculous.
But “talent borrows, genius steals” and so parties began scrutinising every MP and prospective candidate for a story or a journey – it is the political version of an X Factor candidate who gets the viewers welling up with a tale of woe to break even the stoniest of hearts.
But unfortunately for politics powerbrokers you cannot steal someone a history - and if you borrow one you will soon be found out.
Here in Britain likely candidiates have appeared in short supply. The best Labour appear to have come up with is talented, young shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna. But the Streatham MP should be heralded as future leader because it appears he has the ability not because of the colour of his skin.
It seemed the Conservatives were not going to float this particular boat too far upstream – why would they? They reside in Number 10 – albeit as part of a Coalition – and current manoeuvres over Europe should, if played out carefully and correctly, have a positive impact on polling come 2015 even if that particular proposals could come home to roost in the worst possible way in the long-term.
So, it was with some shock that journalists and MPs of both parties picked up the Sunday papers last week.
“Stalking Horse Plot to Oust PM” screamed the Mail on Sunday and the slightly more cautious “Black MP is Hot Tip to be Next Tory Leader” in the Sunday Times. All the lobby journalists involved in these stories are highly skilled, well-respected operators – they were being told this by a reasonable source.
But it has sparked something of a backlash for rank-and-file Tories.
None of the Suffolk or Essex MPs contacted by East meets Westminster admitted to being part of any “coup” plot with most of them laughing at the mere notion of dumping the PM.
Health minister and Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter – a firm backer of the current regime – led the support: “It was because of David Cameron that we won more than 100 seats at the last election and as our Prime Minister he has the united and enthusiastic support of the Conservative Party.”
And others less associated with the front benches also sought to distance themselves from talks of back-room plotting and cloak and dagger campaigns to oust Mr Cameron. Even regular thorn in Number 10’s side Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton, asked if the story was an early April Fool.
It was not – someone, somewhere is trying to make trouble for Mr Cameron. It is a shame that unlike Mr Obama’s team that have the delicacy of a claw hammer.
The black MP touted around the press was Adam Afriyie. And he has a hugely impressive back story – brought up in poverty on the tough streets of South London he has managed to become a multi-millionaire who apparently refuses to claim any expenses for his political work. Those close to him say he is sharp, thoughtful and will become a strong voice in the Conservative Party of the future. So it should not matter if he is black and grew up in Peckham.
Mr Afriyie’s involvement in Sunday’s stories is unclear. But he has either been the victim of a cruel plot to wobble the leadership just days after a major announcement or he has been very badly advised.
Of course maybe the stories were placed by Number 10 when they caught wind of a embryonic plot? Time may shed more light on that theory.
But for now it should be noted that any ascent to power must be organic. Back story – and with it human connection and hopefully charisma - cannot be forced, invented or put out into the public realm as a reason for someone’s political prowess.
British politics has become more presidential but we are not at the stage yet that the voters will fall for any old pretty face with a dashing suit and a good manner in front of camera.
Frankly it is offensive and misguided to an abhorrent level that some disgruntled Tories believe black skin and a history of struggle is enough to unseat a Prime Minister. And surely when Mr Afriyie picked up the papers last weekend he felt some revulsion that he was being described as the Tory Obama because of his skin colour. It is reverse racism at worst and plain stupid at best.
Hopefully Mr Afriyie will not be permanently damaged by these events and one day – post-Cameron – he can go on to become Britain’s answer to the President for no other reason than he is a fantastic politician.
Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt