Leading article: Mr Cameron deserves credit for keeping calm in a transatlantic storm

Saturday 12 June 2010 00:00

The Prime Minister faces calls to mount a robust public defence of BP in the face of ever sharper condemnation from Washington. His critics say that Britain's honour has been impugned, not least by the disparaging rhetoric coming from President Obama and his outdated references to "British Petroleum". They are urging Mr Cameron to hit back in kind. We disagree.

Thus far, Mr Cameron has shown commendable restraint. Contributing to this may have been the fact that he had other things on his mind, not least his trip to Afghanistan. Downing Street has also made known that he has a long-standing telephone date with Mr Obama this weekend, when the BP disaster will be among the subjects discussed.

That is the right approach. There should be no panicked rush to defend BP, which is a private, albeit a very big and important, British company. Nor should the Prime Minister allow himself to be lured into equating the good name of BP with the good name of Britain. There is – as yet – no wave of anti-British feeling in the United States, in the way there was with France, say, over the Iraq war. Those in the afflicted area are blaming BP, not Britain. Why risk inviting confusion?

What needs to be recognised is that the critics on both sides of the Atlantic have their own agenda. Here, any stick, however flimsy, is good for beating a new Prime Minister: the Opposition – and this is, after all, its job – probes for any possible weak spot, while Mr Cameron's own party contains those who cannot forgive him for going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There is here a strong streak of Little Englandism that would like to resurrect the bulldog of old.

For Mr Obama, the priorities are different. He has the mid-term Congressional elections to fight in the autumn – elections on which hang the fate of his first term and prospects for his own re-election. His typically cool and rational reaction to the oil leak disaster failed to give expression to the – largely impotent – indignation felt by the US public. His response, understandable in the circumstances, was to up the rhetoric and play the angered boss. In so doing, he has used language and insinuated powers that he does not have. This is political hyperbole, for domestic impact, from which any British Prime Minister would be well advised to keep his distance.

This is not to say there are not real tensions looming in UK-US relations. Afghanistan is one: the coalition seems even less enthusiastic about a long-term military commitment than the last government. Another is the future shape of Nato and the implications of likely cuts in British defence spending. Mr Obama's less nostalgic view of US-British relations presents a further complication. Britain did not cause the BP disaster; Mr Cameron should not allow himself to be pressed into reacting as though it did.

There are many pitfalls that await new national leaders. One is not to appreciate that remarks designed for domestic politics will from now on be amplified, and interpreted, internationally. Another is to take injurious remarks by other leaders out of their domestic context, so precipitating a needless international dispute. It is to Mr Cameron's credit that he has not so far risen to the bait. We hope that he keeps calm and carries on as he has begun.

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