Major's US mission survives television ordeal: David Usborne, in Washington, saw the Prime Minister confront the media after talks with Bill Clinton

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The Independent Online
HAD THE Prime Minister been spied jogging with President Bill Clinton yesterday morning, we would have known for sure that they had hit it off, both personally and politically. But John Major is not the type, and instead he spent the early hours doing the rounds of the breakfast television shows.

He did not even have to move far for that. The four American networks were all obliged to set up their mini interview sets side-by-side in the ballroom of a downtown hotel, receiving the Prime Minister one after another for two minutes each. The order had been agreed in advance - CBS first, CNN last.

Mr Major's mission on the air remained what it had been throughout the visit: to dispel the impression that the arrival of a Democrat in the White House might mean disaster for the 'special relationship' with Britain or that Mr Clinton himself held any grudge over the role played by Conservative Party officials in the US election or British snooping into his personal files.

And in the end he was able to make the case with reasonable ease. On Wednesday, Mr Clinton had gone out of his way to assert that all was well between America and Britain, readily adopting the 'special relationship' cliche. It would remain special, he said, 'for as long as I'm sitting here in this office'.

For his part, Mr Major said yesterday that his talks with the new President 'could not have been more natural and easy'.

And on substance, though nothing of any great import had been decided, minds had apparently met on several issues. The Prime Minister and his aides seemed genuinely reassured that on trade, the Clinton administration was not, as many politicians in Europe have been fearing, tending towards protectionism and would buckle down to overcome the deadlock in the world trade negotiations.

Mr Clinton's plans for an American air-drop of supplies over eastern Bosnia drew praise from Mr Major, even if it only became more convincing as the visit wore on.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said such an initiative would be 'imaginative'; by yesterday he was terming it 'bold'. And he denied he was worried over possible reprisals against British forces there.

Moreover, there was generous encouragement from Mr Major for the President's recently unveiled economic programme to tackle the US deficit. Given the tax increases involved this was a little ironic coming from the Conservative leader. But, he said, the proposals are 'very welcome indeed'.

The visit was not friction-free, however. The Prime Minister was on the defensive throughout over allegations, levelled by senators and congressmen in letters to President Clinton, that Britain is guilty of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and over Mr Clinton's pledge to send a peace envoy to the province. Details of the leaders' discussion on the issue were carefully guarded, but we know that in his talks with the Prime Minister, Mr Clinton was armed with a thick dossier detailing the alleged rights violations.

Mr Major argued repeatedly that the situation had changed dramatically in Ulster from 10 years ago and that the only way forward was through the continuing, though now stalled, political negotiations. 'I think he (Mr Clinton) accepts that,' he said. An envoy may still be sent, but as a fact- finder rather than a mediator.

There was also an unwelcome, and probably unexpected, feature of all yesterday morning's television shows: repeated questions to the Prime Minister about Britain's image here as a country in social and economic disintegration. Was the Royal Family in decline? How do you explain what happened to James Bulger in Liverpool (a case that has created deep interest in America)? What about recent opinion polls saying half of all Britons want to emigrate?

Reassuring America that Britain is still an attractive country is not something Mr Major or any recent Prime Minister has had to do here before. These perceptions were inaccurate, he said, placing blame for what malaise Britain may have on recession.

And then he observed: 'Six months ago people were saying the same thing about America.' That the American people had since felt moved to sack their leader was something he had apparently forgotten.