Steve Richards: Coalition will be harder now for a PM who yearns to be a President

There is nothing quite so intoxicating in its theatricality. Cameron has had a ball in the US

David Cameron will return from the United States a slightly different leader from when he left. The Prime Minister has never been one for the hard grind of policy detail but has always displayed a fascination with the choreography and theatre of power. To some extent, he shows a mastery of both, too. There is nothing quite so intoxicating in its choreographed theatricality than standing shoulder to shoulder with an American president laying on the biggest of big welcomes. Cameron has had a ball.

At the margins, the multi-layered glittering event will have political impact here and in the US. For President Obama, there is nothing to lose in an election year to be seen bonding with one of the more right-wing leaders in Europe. As far as any of the Republicans' potential candidates have a strategy for the forthcoming election, it is to portray the President as a dangerous leftie. Yet here is the supposedly left-wing Obama enjoying effortless rapport with a prime minister implementing an economic experiment in the UK that The New York Times reminds its readers on a regular basis is more extreme in its austerity than anywhere else in Europe.

For Cameron, there is some gold in the dust, too. On the economy, public services and Europe, he implements policies measurably to the right of Margaret Thatcher, and yet he brilliantly projects himself as a one-nation centrist. A glowing relationship with the international superstar of the centre left reinforces the contortion.

Cameron knows, too, that the British journalists accompanying him will be dazzled at this affirmation of prime ministerial authority. As Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock never fully recovered from being rebuffed by President Reagan on a visit to Washington, while Margaret Thatcher acquired additional sheen from her love-in with the leader of a superpower. Blair remained convinced that, even after Iraq, his close relationship with Bush impressed Middle England, the only electoral constituency that worried him. Perhaps he was right. He went on to win a general election after Iraq.

But in the cases of Obama and Cameron, the electoral impact of this particular visit will be minimal. In the US, most voters in their famous insularity will not notice Cameron. In the UK, the next election is a long way off and other factors will determine whether Cameron succeeds in his highly ambitious project, a claim for the centre ground while implementing radical right-wing policies.

Similarly, the substance of their talks is of little significance even if the topics are monumental in scope. The military mission in Afghanistan was doomed long ago, when George Bush turned his impatient attention to Iraq. In the build-up to the war in Iraq, several informed voices, including that of Clare Short after a lengthy ministerial visit to Afghanistan in September 2002, warned that the Taliban was starting to regroup on the outskirts of Kabul because military resources were being switched. The voices were ignored and, ever since, troops have been engaged in an impossible, deadly mission to plaster over the growing cracks. Both Obama and Cameron agree on the need for withdrawal, and it is in their interests to pretend that the long war has achieved its aims.

Leading in the post-Iraq era, there is also quite a lot of consensus between the two of them on the very different but daunting challenges of Syria and Iran, even if there are differences over the attitude of Israel in the case of Iran. Nothing dramatic of substance will surface from the talks.

 

The change that will arise from this visit relates to Cameron's outlook when he returns to the UK. For three days, Cameron has been a prime minister unencumbered. He has been hailed and revered by a president, rock stars and on the US news networks. Briefly, he will forget that he is the first British premier since Harold Wilson in February 1974 to fail to win an overall majority. For a time, he will feel fleetingly presidential and, being human, will enjoy the sensation.

In his joint press conferences with Bush, Tony Blair seemed to forget altogether that he was not a president and was, in humdrum reality, a mere prime minister dependent on the support of parliament, a fuming Chancellor breathing down his neck and his party. Similarly, in a different international context, Cameron could almost forget briefly about Nick Clegg and the constraints of coalition as he was treated like a prime ministerial superstar.

Cameron's personal relations with Clegg are still good. So they should be. From sweeping spending cuts to overhauling the NHS, education reform and welfare changes the Conservatives are implementing their planned revolution with the support of the Liberal Democrats. Nonetheless, the smaller party and its leader raise a lot of concerns, are getting more assertive in their public distinctiveness and take up a lot of time within government.

After being treated like a mighty leader in the US, Cameron will find it a little more irritating when he returns to negotiate one more time with Clegg as to what should be in the Budget. The thought will cross his mind: "One minute, I am discussing world affairs at the White House. The next I am dealing with someone who wants a Tycoon Tax. What am I doing here?"

Deep down, he knows he is there because he did not win the last election outright, but that thought will go a little deeper down now. More specifically, Cameron's Euro-scepticism will deepen a little, too. Cameron is not as ardent an Atlanticist as Blair felt he had to be. But he will note how much easier and glamorous it is negotiating with a president between rock gigs and basketball matches compared with late nights in Brussels trying to get Sarkozy on side and exerting a veto that vetoes nothing at one in the morning.

Cameron will also be aware that it is in foreign policy, the issues he discussed with Obama as if he were a mighty PM, where he has no free hand. In some ways, the Liberal Democrats are more assertive over their internationalist credentials than they are over domestic policy.

This is the change from David Cameron's trip to Washington. Instead of nearly always being grateful to Nick Clegg, he will become a little more resentful that he is not as mighty as he was in the US. If relations between the two Coalition partners are relatively smooth, this will be a minor development. If there are further tensions over policy, a little irritation could grow into something big.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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