David Cameron has never quite understood why so many of his Conservative colleagues are so keen on America. In the build-up to the Iraq war, he was bemused to watch close political friends applauding the Prime Minister’s alliance with the White House and, with it, the Iraq war. He still refers to them as ‘you neocons’, and has only half-jokingly applied this label to George Osborne, his shadow chancellor. Now he is finally adjusting the party’s position.
The formula which Charles Kennedy used during the Iraq war, that Britain should be a ‘candid friend’ to America, has in effect become the new Conservative policy. William Hague tells anxious colleagues this is a return to the Thatcher–Reagan era of candour. The ‘special relationship’, according to the shadow foreign secretary, is more than strong enough to withstand the occasional flow of harsh words across the Atlantic. But, from the other side of the pond, Mr Cameron’s shifting stance seems more like a covert attempt to tap into British anti-Americanism.
The US state department has recently become convinced that Mr Cameron’s aides are trying to spin against the White House — and it has a specific example in mind. The Mail on Sunday was preparing to run a story at the end of last year reporting that a state department official had told a senior Tory that Mr Cameron could forget any chance of an Oval Office visit if he kept on taking coded swipes at the Bush administration.
When the newspaper called the official, she said both the story and the quotes attributed to her were fabricated. The story was never printed, but it continues to make waves. The same state department official later recounted all this to a private gathering in London. It showed, she said, that the Cameron Conservatives were feeding concocted anti-Bush stories to the press. They are, she concluded, more deceitful spinners than Tony Blair’s Labour party ever were.
The Conservatives said they planted no such story, and my own inquiries suggest it was winkled out of a source rather than handed on a plate. But what matters is the bigger picture: namely, that the Conservatives are being treated with suspicion by the Bush administration, and denounced by a state department official. In as much as the White House thinks of the Conservatives at all, it sees a party of turncoats, opportunists and undependable allies who strike a sorry contrast with the steadfast Tony Blair.
The Conservatives are annoyed by this, but by no means heartbroken. Mr Cameron has no plans to visit the White House anyway, I am told, and believes it is hardly political suicide to distance himself from the Bush administration. Hasn’t Senator John McCain, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, denounced Donald Rumsfeld as the worst defence secretary in decades? There is a fundamental distinction between attacking President Bush, the Tories argue, and attacking America.
No less than Mr Cameron’s proposed tax on airlines, it’s a rationale which makes a lot of sense inside Conservative headquarters. But when presented outside, its effects are disastrous. Senator McCain, who spoke about his ‘friend’ David Cameron just six months ago at the last Tory conference (they had never met) and gave the young leader vocal support in this magazine, is still considered the Conservatives’ First Friend in America. But there are signs that even Sen. McCain is having his doubts.
He was alarmed to see the Conservatives backing the Baker-Hamilton report, calling for early withdrawal from Iraq, a report which he viciously ridiculed. Marshall Whitman, a close ally of McCain, privately says the senator was given a different impression of Mr Cameron’s thoughts on Iraq during his trip to England. Their paths have diverged over the last four months, he adds. His disappointment with Mr Cameron has become an open secret. To make matters worse, similar concerns are now emanating from the Giuliani camp.
American nerves are so raw because policymakers, in all parties, have a keen eye on the precipitous rise of anti-Americanism across Europe. Six years ago, 85 per cent of Brits had favourable impressions of America; now the figure has fallen to 56 per cent. Washington keeps a keen eye on European political parties, which, they suspect, try to win votes by pandering to such sentiment. So when Mr Cameron talks about a ‘solid, but not slavish’ alliance with America, his remarks are inevitably seen in Washington as a dog-whistle blown to British voters who want to be shot of the ‘special relationship’.
All this is grist to Gordon Brown’s relentlessly churning mill. He intends to portray Mr Cameron as a lonely pygmy on the international stage, with only a few obscure Czechs and Swedes for company. The Chancellor has spent years preparing his own list of endorsements, from Nelson Mandela to Alan Greenspan. Bar a few ritual statements, he stayed silent on the Iraq war — but misses no opportunity to praise America. Moreover, most of his favourite policies are stamped with the DNA of the Clinton administration.
Having spent many summers in Cape Cod with American policy wonks, he is aware of their sensitivities. All of his policies may have pushed Britain towards the European economic model and away from the American model he affects to admire. But his language has been flattering, and his contacts have been strong. This is perhaps why it is hard to find anyone in Washington who does not consider him preferable to David Cameron.
The Conservatives are relaxed about this. The voters to whom they are appealing all live in Britain, they say, and the Chancellor may find that his global backers desert him pretty fast on election night if they think the tide is turning to Mr Cameron. ‘Brown thinks he owns them, but they are happy to sup with us as well,’ says a senior shadow Cabinet member. The Tories cite as a topical example Al Gore, who advises the Chancellor about climate change but who also agreed to address the shadow Cabinet this week.
Mr Cameron’s team are now working on the assumption that the election will be in 2010, which would give him plenty of time to fine-tune his foreign policy and his relations with Washington. But unless he manages a spectacular recovery, it seems that whoever wins the White House in 2008 will yet again be cheering for Labour on general-election night.