With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.
The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.
The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.
It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?
In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.
Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.
When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton. This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.
When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.
With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.
The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…