Leading article: Not so special relationship

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It is not hard to imagine how the spirits of Downing Street advisers plummeted when they learned that there was to be no White House press conference after the Prime Minister's talks with Barack Obama.

In the event, the British camp was given something almost as good, and arguably better: the new President and Gordon Brown sitting, ostensibly at ease, and taking questions from a few reporters. This suggested that there might have been a more genuine and relaxed exchange of views, however brief, than the cringe-making Colgate toothpaste moment that emerged from Tony Blair's first meeting with George Bush at Camp David.

The public accounting yesterday passed off at least as well as it had to. That said, however, first meetings between British prime ministers and new US presidents are minefields of politics and protocol. So much is at stake for the British side, so comparatively little to a new President who hardly needs, at this point, to woo American voters. And even if he did, no amount of references to the "special relationship" would probably do it for him.

Mr Obama had learned his lines. He knew what Mr Brown was after, and he supplied it, albeit at times haltingly and without obvious warmth. "Special", as in "special relationship" was the default word, sprinkled liberally in every other sentence.

The small print, though, was more cautious. The special relationship, Mr Obama said, would only get stronger as time went on, suggesting that the pair of them had only made a start. And if Mr Brown aspired to be America's number one foreign ally, he might have been fractionally disappointed. Mr Obama described Britain as "one of our closest and strongest allies".

For a first Brown-Obama meeting, there should be nothing to be ashamed of in a register that is low key. Our disappointment is that the stale paean to the "special relationship" remains the only theme that British prime ministers visiting Washington still want to hear. It is a pity that a new, modern President stuck to the old script, rather than striking a more contemporary – and perhaps realistic – note.