Downing Street aides were ecstatic about the prospect of priceless pre-election pictures winging their way across the Atlantic when the message came through from Washington that Barack Obama would receive David Cameron over two days at the White House this week.
A programme was drawn up officials to allow Downing Street to depict the event as a serious meeting between world leaders at a time of grave economic uncertainty.
In private, however, No 10’s main interests were a White House dinner on Thursday night, talks in the Oval Office and a press conference on Friday to burnish the prime minister’s credentials as a world statesman next to the man who calls him Bro’. Cue the inevitable contrasts with Labour party leader Ed Miliband who was granted the lower presidential “brush by” treatment, traditionally accorded to opposition leaders, when he visited the White House last summer.
Events in Paris, however, intervened to turn the talks into a genuinely significant encounter as the White House finalises plans for a counter-terrorism summit next month. The prime minister will be the first European leader to visit the White House since attending the Unity march in Paris last weekend. The US is said to have regretted failing to send a high level figure to the march.
“It will be a significant visit because David Cameron is the first European leader to appear in Washington after the events in Paris,” said Keith Simpson, the former parliamentary aide to William Hague. “We know the Americans are now very sensitive to the fact that they did not send a high level representative to what was an international event – the defence of liberty and a signal to stand up against terrorism. It is amazing that the Americans, of all people, didn’t do that.”
The talks at the 90-minute dinner and in the more formal setting of the Oval House have been expanded to cover an assessment of the intelligence capabilities in combating the threat of home-grown Islamist extremists in Europe and jihadis in Iran, Syria and Yemen. The prime minister will update the president on his new initiative to widen the laws on state surveillance after the election.
The Tories believe that Obama is opening up the White House to Cameron on the eve of the general election – his last bilateral overseas visit before polling day – because they have forged such a close relationship in recent years over Libya and Syria. They believe Obama cares little for Miliband after the Labour leader declined to support military action against Syria in a Hosue of Commons vote in August 2013.
“This is a personal relationship; it is chemistry in many ways,” says Nadhim Zahawi, a Tory member of the commons foreign affairs select committee who is a member of the No 10 policy board. “When the president and Michelle Obama were over here, you could see this was a relationship based on real friendship.”
Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, cautions that Cameron is the beneficiary of a decision by the White House to improve Obama’s relations with its key European allies – Britain, France and Germany – in his second term. Obama, who took some time to come round to Cameron after being surprised by his strident Euroscepticism when they first met in 2008, is said to be perplexed by events in Britain over the past year.
The president was deeply alarmed by the prospect of a breakup of the UK in September’s Scottish independence, which would have threatened Britain’s nuclear deterrent which is based at Faslane. Obama is also worried that the delicate strategic balance among the US’s allies in the European Union may be upset if Britain leaves.
The president has been so concerned by the turn of politics in the UK in the past year that he has been heard to ask aloud in the presence of British figures whether the UK is having some kind of identity crisis.
Meyer told the Guardian: “That is not totally inaccurate. Who are we? Where is the UK? What kind of ally do we want to be to the US which is derivative question from the larger one which is what kind of role do we want to play in the world?”
Downing Street aides are hoping that Cameron will follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher who secured a coup when she visited the then fresh-faced Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow on the eve of the 1987 general election.
But Meyer advises No 10 to keep a proper perspective. “I think there is no evidence whatsoever anyway in the history of the UK to show that meeting the American president a few months before a general election makes any difference at all,” the former ambassador said. “But it is deep in the psyche of British politics. It is one of the tributaries of the great river of the special relationship that there must be electoral benefits in being seen with the US president. It doesn’t do any harm of course but the effect of all this is greatly exaggerated.”
The world has moved on since 1987 when Thatcher wooed the crowds in Moscow and broke new ground by meeting dissidents.
Sir Bryan Cartledge, who helped organise Thatcher’s visit as the British ambassador to Moscow, barely gave the election a thought. “It may sound peculiar but, frankly, from my point of view in preparing the visit the election didn’t really spring to mind at all,” Cartledge said. “It was only afterwards when Charles Powell [Thatcher’s foreign affairs private secretary] sent me the usual thank you letter saying thanks very much for everything, adding it’s probably won her the next election. I thought: good heavens that thought hadn’t occurred to me.”
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