The ash cloud nearly claimed its first victim last night: Barack Obama had to leave Ireland early in order to fly to Britain. The Palace’s insistence on protocol has been upset and the President's entourage has been advised not to risk the tap water; other than that, all is well.
However, the visit has set sceptical tongues wagging. Some diplomats wonder why the President is here. Afghanistan, the Middle East, joint national security and the world economy are on the agenda, but there is no unifying theme to discussions. Some ideologues fear that the eternal bond between Britain and America is relaxing into a union of convenience.
On the other hand, Philip Stephens of the Financial Times argues that this is positive – our ties are stronger for discussing matters of substance rather than agonising over nebulous myths. I’m inclined to agree. It is striking that men of broadly opposed political attitudes are pursuing deficit reduction, more so than it is that they invoke a fading history.
Cameron and Obama emphasise this in their joint article for the Times (£): acknowledging their differences, while affirming their shared values and essential alliance. Though their rapport lacks the fervour (whether real or not) of their predecessors it’s no weaker for that. Their co-operation on issues such as Libya, Israel and the economy are examples of what aides call a “businesslike relationship”. The scale of shared ambition has diminished, but Britain and America still seek to shape the world together.
Naturally, Cameron gains more by today’s pageant than Obama. Despite difficulties at home, the President still captivates abroad and Cameron will benefit by association. Patrick Wintour also observes that Cameron will win capital from Obama’s likely endorsement of his economic strategy, not least because it isolates Labour, who perhaps laid too much faith in the lessons of America. Cameron may be disappointed that the tabloids are still slavering over Ryan Giggs; but their focus will probably shift soon enough: even prurience can’t rival the President of the United States, to say nothing of Her Majesty.
H/T: ABC video channel.