The power brokers who will shape 2018

It's been a year of surprises – but who will make their mark in the months ahead?


Between the devil and the DUP
(Image credit: 2017 Getty Images)

"It's quite something to stab your prime minister in the back when she's about to do a deal," noted a senior EU figure after Arlene Foster's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) threatened to scupper Britain's messy divorce from Europe in December. But Theresa May's government should have realised that Foster was never going to be a pushover. The DUP leader is "accustomed to pushing her negotiating partners up against a deadline", says the Financial Times. And having spent years in coalition government with unionism's long-term political opponents, Sinn Fein, she has plenty of experience of unlikely political marriages.

Born in 1970, and raised on a farm in County Fermanagh close to the Irish border, Foster was eight when the IRA attempted to murder her Royal Ulster Constabulary reservist father outside her home forcing the family to relocate. Some ten years later, she survived an IRA attack on her school bus. Foster entered politics while reading law at Queen's University in Belfast and was a rising star in the Ulster Unionist Party.

But her vehement opposition to the Good Friday Agreement peace deal saw her defect to Ian Paisley's more hard-line DUP in 2003, says The Belfast Telegraph. A protg of first minister, Peter Robinson, she became his trusted "caretaker" and eventually the leader of the party and first minister in 2015.

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The next year, she was caught up in a scandal over a failed renewable energy subsidy scheme (dubbed "cash for ash") that led to the collapse of the power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein.

Even though they could pull the plug on May's minority government at any point, the DUP remain the butt of jokes at Westminster. The PM has joked about singing "Come on Arlene" on the karaoke. That looks dangerous. For the moment, Foster has been prevailed upon to sign up to the "alignment" fudge being cooked up in London, Dublin and Brussels on the future of the province. But most expect a further collision.

Trump's enemy No. 1

Ever since Robert Mueller's appointment in May, to investigate allegations of Russian interference with the 2016 US election, Americans have been watching the special prosecutor with mounting interest, says Time. And the former FBI chief, renowned for his toughness and independence, hasn't disappointed them.

He's provided a "once-in-a-generation spectacle of a powerful prosecutor on the trail of the president's men".The indictments of two members of Trump's campaign team and a former foreign-policy adviser were serious enough. The subsequent plea bargain with former national security adviser Michael Flynn puts the investigation firmly in the White House.

Mueller served as a Marine officer in the Vietnam war, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and two Commendation medals, notes The Daily Telegraph. He started his professional life as a prosecutor with the US Attorneys' Office, later leading the US Department of Justice's investigations into Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and the Lockerbie bombing.

Appointed head of the FBI by George W. Bush a week before 9/11, Mueller went on to transform the bureau into a counter-terrorism agency, becoming "the longest serving director of the FBI since J. Edgar Hoover" after being asked to stay on by Obama. Following his departure from the FBI, Mueller joined the law firm WilmerHale as a partner.

The closer Mueller gets to Trump, the more likely it is that the president will try to end his investigation. Following Flynn's indictment, Trump lashed out against the FBI and Mueller. His allies and media supporters are now trying to attack the investigation's credibility, claiming political bias and calling for it to be defunded. Mueller's fate in 2018 will be an important test of the continuing supremacy of the rule of law in America.

Italy's "political mummy" returns

Among the political figures who congratulated Donald Trump on his surprise election victory last year was "the politician to whom the billionaire real-estate mogul and reality TV star has most often been compared", says The Guardian. But Silvio Berlusconi was never one to just stand in the wings applauding. His reappearance in 2017 demonstrates his "enduring vitality" after successive scandals.

It comes 18 months after Berlusconi, 81, underwent open-heart surgery. Judging by his fixed grin, he's clearly had other work done too; Beppe Grillo, founder of the populist Five Star Movement, lambasted him as a political mummy.

The scene of Berlusconi's triumph this year was Sicily, where November's elections were "the last big test of the political mood" ahead of a national vote expected in the spring, says the Financial Times. The victory of his centre-right bloc puts him in pole position for the national vote, ahead of the eurosceptic Five Star Movement and the ruling centre-left Democratic party.

"To attract moderate voters he has lost in recent years Berlusconi's strategy has been to cast himself as more statesmanlike and less eurosceptic." He's also working to project "a softer image", says The Guardian. Berlusconi has announced his conversion to vegetarianism. He and his 32-year-old girlfriend "keep ten dogs at home".

Berlusconi cannot run for office himself due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction, unless this is overturned by the courts. Yet he could end up "pulling the strings of power". He still has the magnetism to become the "alchemist" in any coalition.