Two years ago, David Cameron was introduced to the American people on the front cover of Time magazine, which asked: "The UK's next leader?" Then, the assumption was that he would sweep to power at the head of a majority Conservative government. This week, he arrives in Washington for his first visit as Prime Minister, and his first task is to explain what a Liberal Conservative is. To American ears, it makes as much sense as a Republican Democrat.
In a new interview with Time, Cameron says of the word "liberal" that it "means slightly different things on this side of the Atlantic". He explains that he leads a coalition of two parties who agree on a lot, and in which "the Liberals put greater emphasis on freedom, perhaps the Conservatives put greater emphasis on responsibility". He knows, though, that he faces a bigger task of explanation and recalibration this week.
It goes without saying that his visit will be accompanied by screeds of angst in the British press about the future of the special relationship, a phrase in which the word special has about as much meaning as it does on a supermarket offer. It goes without saying that his visit will go almost unnoticed by the US media, for whom UK politics consists of a vivid memory of someone called Tony Blair, whose memoir, A Journey, is about to hit the market.
Yet Cameron knows that his relationship with Barack Obama is one of his most important. The US-UK relationship is, as Professor Peter Hennessy reminded an audience of retired spies and mandarins last week, a particularly prime ministerial one. It is a relationship built on intelligence and nuclear weapons co-operation, the foundations of the secret state. And it is a relationship that has made or broken a succession of British prime ministers. Eden destroyed his premiership by going behind America's back at Suez. Wilson judiciously survived by resisting US pressure to join the war in Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher put reinforced concrete joists under her reputation as joint victor of the Cold War by her alliance with Ronald Reagan. And the rest, as they say, is contemporary history.
The importance of the relationship to Cameron was underlined symbolically by one of his first acts as Prime Minister, setting up an American-sounding National Security Council. As Hennessy said, it is an idea whose time has come, even if it first came in 1904. He described the NSC as, in effect, Arthur Balfour's Committee for Imperial Defence "with a bit more IT". But it marks an understanding of how important the War Formerly Known As The War Against Terror will be to the Cameron government, a war in which Britain and the US will continue to be close if not equal partners.
Indeed, it is interesting that, as part of his recalibration, Cameron said in his Time interview that, of course, Britain was the junior partner. That is not a spade that Blair would have readily called a spade, but it marks a canny moderation of the rhetorical temperature from some of the more heated effusions of the Thatcher and Blair eras. I am told that Cameron senses that striving too hard to be treated as an equal, as Gordon Brown was thought to do, risks being seen as "needy". And there is no harm in bluntly accepting the reality of the situation in Afghanistan, where the British withdrawal is now taking place almost literally under US covering fire.
What good fortune Cameron has in coming to power so soon after the election of President Obama detoxified the US brand over here. A "junior partner" to a "liberal" president is by definition no poodle. Not only that, but Cameron is still enjoying a media honeymoon which means the deep differences between the Obama administration and the British coalition over taking demand out of the economy have been relegated to the financial pages.
Obama must envy the Prime Minister's easy ride. He did not get much of one after he arrived in the White House. On the contrary, he provoked a furious partisan backlash among Republicans and the right-wing media, while quickly disappointing the "liberals" over there. And yet just last week the President won another huge victory in Congress, securing its votes for his financial reform bill.
As John Harris and Jim VandeHei wrote last week for Politico: "when Obama came into office the assumption even among some Democrats was that he was a dazzling politician and communicator who might prove too unseasoned at governance to win substantive achievements. The reality is the opposite. You can argue over whether Obama's achievements are good or bad on the merits. But, especially after Thursday's vote, you can't argue that Obama is not getting things done."
He has won healthcare reform to cover the uninsured, he has started to pull out of Iraq and now, finally, has the semblance of a credible strategy in Afghanistan, under the leadership of General Petraeus. Not only that but, pretty much unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, he has begun a reform of the public – that is, state – schools system. He has introduced an incentive scheme for states that adopt reforms based on individual testing and bringing in new school providers, which could be historic. The only problem, as Harris and VandeHei put it, "is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications".
Cameron's situation is similar over here. He was lauded by the liberal media as a dazzling communicator, and yet has run into trouble within weeks in his two great delivery departments, education and health. His policies may even be the right ones, but his communications strategy has been terrible, publishing error-strewn lists of cancelled rebuilding projects and inducing despair among patients and NHS workers at the thought of another huge "reorganisation".
But the common ground between him and Obama on their domestic reforms must be a hopeful sign for Cameron. The special relationship might take an unexpected form.
John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoulReuse content