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What do HS2 and Donald Trump’s wall have in common?

The cycles of British and American politics have coincided again: Boris Johnson will be watching this year’s US presidential election for lessons for his own re-election attempt

John Rentoul
Saturday 25 January 2020 17:00 GMT
What is HS2?

What do HS2 and the wall across the US southern border have in common? They are both huge infrastructure projects that have not been built. But now they have a political importance in common too.

Boris Johnson hopes to be re-elected by former Labour voters in the north, midlands and Wales, and for them, the high-speed railway connecting northern cities and Birmingham to London is a possible symbol that the new prime minister shares their priorities.

Just as Donald Trump hopes to be re-elected this November by former Democrat voters in the rust belt, for whom the wall is a symbol that the president understands them.

The half-rhymes between the cycles of British and American politics have been one of the enduring fascinations of comparing the two countries. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were ideological partners, even if Reagan hesitated over supporting her over the Falklands and forgot to tell her he was invading Grenada, the Commonwealth country in the Caribbean.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were ideological buddies of the centre-left, with New Labour explicitly copying some of the themes of Clinton’s election campaign in 1992 for its own five years later.

After that, the cycles went out of kilter. Blair’s closeness to George W Bush did him no good at all. Gordon Brown wanted to be close to Barack Obama, to the extent at one point of following him through the kitchens of the UN building in New York, and despite Obama keeping his distance the two of them led the brave and correct global response to the financial crash.

David Cameron got on well with Obama, as a fellow smooth-talking rational pragmatist, and was delighted to secure the president’s endorsement of the Remain campaign in the 2016 EU referendum. But, as Steve Richards observes in the introduction to his brilliant new book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May, “the evidence suggests that Obama’s intervention boosted the Brexit campaign”.

Which brings us to the current cycle, which began with the Leave victory in the referendum, followed five months later by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. The similarities between the two campaigns have been endlessly rehearsed – and indeed labelled “national populism” by Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell. After the three-and-a-half year detour of Theresa May’s premiership, we are now back in the situation where our electoral cycle is lagging theirs. Johnson has just won his election, by appealing to the equivalent of the rust belt, the former industrial areas of the “red wall” across England and Wales.

He will thus be watching to see whether Trump succeeds in persuading his rust-belt voters that he is delivering for them. It has become a commonplace that Johnson needs to focus every day, as Bill Clinton once said and as Blair was fond of repeating, on those people who voted for him for the first time. In Johnson’s case, that means those working-class Labour Leavers who “lent” the Conservatives their vote last month.

That means, as is also often observed, a different set of priorities for the Conservatives from their traditional concerns. It means more state intervention, more economic populism and less metropolitan elitism.

But what is less often noticed is that we are about to witness a huge natural experiment in precisely that electoral strategy, this November, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those are the states that gave Trump his electoral college victory: if he can deliver for them, he will be re-elected.

It is becoming clearer that “delivering for” those rust-belt states does not mean actually reviving their economies, or building the wall hundreds of miles away. What it means is continuing to sound like a politician who speaks their language, and who cares about controlling illegal immigration across the southern border.

Above all, though, it may mean being a politician who is up against a weak opponent. Joe Biden has some blue-collar credibility in those states that will decide this election; Bernie Sanders has some of the populist fire that is needed; but the rest have all been tried before. Michael Bloomberg has a lot of money; Elizabeth Warren is a more combative version of Hillary Clinton; and Pete Buttigieg is the razor-sharp smoothie who is under the age of 70. None of them is the full set of what the Democratic Party needs against Trump, and so the president can win re-election without delivering anything of substance for the people who voted for him last time. Symbols will be enough.

Johnson will be watching and learning. HS2 is an absurd symbol. Even if Johnson gives it the go-ahead now, as I suspect he will, hardly anything will actually have been built by 2024. Worse than that, my view is that HS2 will only increase the economic pull of London and the southeast, by adding another spoke to the capital’s hub. But northern Labour council leaders – and Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands region – think it is important for rebalancing the economy, and that belief counts for a great deal.

All Johnson has to do is convince British rust-belt voters that he cares about them, and that the Labour leader is a metropolitan elitist, and he will follow Trump in being re-elected.

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