A US official handed out a pass marked “White House Press Pool”. A US official guided the press into the Locarno Room. A 7ft 6in lantern-jawed CIA operative with thin, ice-blue eyes hovered by the lecterns. There is some corner of the Foreign Office that is, if not forever, at least temporarily, American.
Fifteen minutes later than planned – David Cameron had to be frisked by a US security detail – the president of the United States and the prime minister walked in together. Dave looked tense and serious, Barack Obama hand-in-pocket relaxed, as befitted a man who now owned the place.
Dave kicked things off by talking about Syria, Libya, basketball, what a good bloke his friend Barack was and how he had lost to him at table tennis. Anything but mention the EU. Then, as if as an afterthought, he added that since the president was in town it might be quite nice to hear him shoot the breeze about what he happened to think about the upcoming referendum. Over to you, Barack.
Barack, too, tried to maintain the pretence that his presence in the UK was a total coincidence by saying how much he had enjoyed being driven to lunch by the Dook of Edinboro and how he had actually been playing table tennis with Dave against some nine-year olds. That’s the nature of the special relationship these days. Dave feels beaten even when he’s on the same side.
The president then moved on to Libya and Dave caught his breath, hoping his best friend wouldn’t mention he had only recently described Dave’s exploits in north Africa as borderline idiotic. Thankfully, Barack remembered his manners and Dave let out a sigh of relief. The special relationship did still count for something.
Then the money shot. “Er, since I’m, er, here,” said Barack. It’s sometimes hard to know if the president is actually dozing off between words or just thinking of yet another subordinate clause to add on to the preceding 28. “Part of, er, being in a … special, er, relay…shunship … is, er, being, er, honest. Ahm not, er, here to, er, fix any, er, votes, er. Ahm, er, here to, er, give you, er, some, er, infor…er…mayshun.”
And what that honesty and information entailed was that if Britain was stupid enough to vote for Brexit then the country would be dead in the water. He’d heard what some people on the leave side had been saying about how they could strike an easy trade deal with the US, but he was here to say there was no way the US would bother to prioritise the Limeys if they were out of the EU. The UK was just too small and insignificant for him to be bothered with. Hell, the country didn’t even have a decent basketball team. “Britain, er, would, er, be at, er, the back of the, er, queue.”
Dave couldn’t believe his luck. He’d been hoping for a few nice platitudes about Britain being stronger in Europe, but to be told that Britain would effectively be on the economic scrapheap if it left the EU was beyond his wildest dreams. He smiled the widest of smiles, before remembering that applauding a bankrupt Britain wasn’t wholly a good look for a British prime minister.
The trouble with talking in so many parentheses is that you eventually get round to telling the truth about how unspecial the special relationship really is, and Barack felt obliged to rein back a bit and try to respecialise the special relationship. “Ah, er, love, er, Winston, er, Churchill,” he said. So much so that he had moved his bust from the Oval Office to his bedside table so he could stroke it every night before bed. “Let me, er, er, make it, er, plain,” he continued. Slowly. “If, er, Britain … was to, er, leave the, er, EU … then the, er, special, er, relay…er… shunship would, er, still, er, continue, er, inter…er…llectually, er, cultu…er…ly and, er, emo…shun…er…ly.” Just not economically.
By now Dave was looking a bit agitated. The president had said what he was meant to say, and more, but he was now going on a bit. If he carried on much longer he might miss the six o’clock news, which had been the whole purpose of having the press conference in the afternoon. “That’s all, folks,” he said at 5.55pm, cutting the president off in mid-subordinate clause. Barack didn’t appear to notice. There would be plenty of time to finish his sentence the following day. Or the one after that.
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Friday 22nd April 2016 20.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010