James Forsyth

Obama could be a great ally to a prime minister — but not this one

Gordon Brown has absurdly high expectations of the political boost he will get from this week’s trip to Washington and the G20 summit in London next month, says James Forsyth. It is David Cameron who stands to be the likely beneficiary of the special relationship

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Gordon Brown has absurdly high expectations of the political boost he will get from this week’s trip to Washington and the G20 summit in London next month, says James Forsyth. It is David Cameron who stands to be the likely beneficiary of the special relationship

The ‘legacy’ might be an extremely touchy subject in Downing Street these days, but the speech reflected how Gordon Brown wanted history to remember him: a consequential prime minister who helped steer the world through one of its great crises. When the senators and congressmen rose to applaud him, all the ambitions that Brown has nursed throughout his political career must have seemed within reach. Here he was, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, lecturing a specially convened joint session of the US Congress about the need for a ‘global new deal’. But, in truth, the moment was more like the last wish granted a condemned man than the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition.

Brown will not go down in the history books alongside the other prime ministers who have had the honour of addressing a joint session of the US Congress — Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair — but as one who oversaw the worst recession in postwar British history and never even won an election. The story of the next 14 months will be Brown’s last desperate attempt to revive his electoral fortunes and his reputation.

In the President, Brown sees a lifeline: someone with enough political capital to bail him out, as his own government has the bankers. Already Obama has offered Brown access to a valuable line of credit. The constant stream of announcements on the economy had devalued the currency of the prime ministerial statement, but the President’s unexpected offer to Brown to address a joint session of Congress gave him a platform which the British press and public could not ignore.

Brown’s survival strategy is, on paper, simple. Align himself with Obama, hold a successful G20 Summit at the beginning of April, be seen as the man steering the world through the economic storm and have the British economy growing again a decent interval before polling day. So crucial to the Prime Minister’s comeback hopes is the G20 that the Budget has even been pushed back to accommodate it. It will now take place on 22 April, the latest date for a Budget since Labour came to power in 1997.

There is a slew of reasons why Labour is placing so much faith in the G20. An international summit on the economy accords with Brown’s narrative that this crisis is global; it is a more diplomatic version of the ‘It started in America’ line. It will almost certainly support some kind of co-ordinated international action to stimulate the global economy. This will allow Brown to argue, wrongly, that the ‘do-nothing’ Tories are alone in the world in opposing a stimulus — Brown will have been delighted to have seen several newspapers pick up this line on Wednesday. It will also give him cover for yet more deficit-funded spending in the Budget and be his excuse for why his stimulus plan has not yet worked. In the 2008 Pre-Budget Report, Brown and Darling said that the stimulus would have the British economy growing again by the third quarter of this year.

Another reason for placing such a heavy emphasis on the summit is the theory that the sight of Brown leading the world in its response to this economic crisis might restore some of the public’s faith in his economic competence, a prerequisite of a Brown recovery. The Financial Times’s headline on Wednesday ‘Obama backs UK on crisis co-ordination’ will have delighted Downing Street.

Then there is, of course, the desire to associate with the most powerful brand in global politics: a belief among those depressed by the party’s unpopularity that Obama can — by his mere presence — make this grubby, tired government shiny and new again. Labour is relying on the shots of Brown and Obama having the opposite effect on the electorate of those of Blair and Bush together. But perhaps the main reason Labour has invested so much in this summit is that it needs something to cling to, something to make it dream that Brown can come back.

This is a false hope. Ironically, it is Obama — the very man from whom Brown is so desperate to receive a fresh lease of political life — who will, albeit unintentionally, ensure that Brown will not be restored to political health by an international triumph. Last autumn, as Brown fought back to within striking distance of the Tories in the polls, he benefited from the vacuum in global leadership created by a lame-duck American president. Brown, like Sarkozy, was able to spin to his domestic press the line that he had been the driving force behind every agreement. The PM appeared to be a man taking decisive action at home and abroad. These claims, if not entirely true, were at least plausible.

At the G20, though, Obama will be the alpha male, the key negotiator and the one given the credit for any progress made. Every leader there will want to put chips in the bank with the new American President, not the British prime minister who will be out of office in just over a year.

There is also a distinct possibility that the summit will achieve next to nothing because the Obama administration is not yet sure what it wants it to achieve. One rumour in Washington is that Brown was offered the honour of addressing Congress to win time for the new administration to formulate its views on precisely what kind of international co-operation and changes to the global financial architecture are needed. The price of the stage and the applause that Brown received in Washington this week might well be a platitudinous G20 communiqué.

The administration needs to buy time because more than a month after being inaugurated, Obama has only one of his Treasury appointees in place. The fear of another embarrassment over unpaid taxes like those which have already forced several of Obama’s nominees to drop out and the strict rules on lobbyists working for his administration are holding up the vetting process. Amazingly, the treasury secretary Tim Geithner is the only treasury official to have been confirmed: the deputy secretary position and all the assistant and under-secretary positions remain open.

Until these posts are filled, the administration will not have the manpower to work out what international action it wants taken. In these circumstances, the Obama administration will not be keen to enter into detailed negotiations on changes to the global economic system. If that has not changed by 2 April, the summit might as well be cancelled for all it will achieve. On the global economy, as so much else, America remains the indispensable nation.

The Brown–Obama relationship is the most unequal between a US president and a British prime minister in living memory. Unlike Tony Blair’s with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, or Margaret Thatcher’s with Ronald Reagan, there is little that the president needs from the prime minister. There will not be the antagonism that characterised the Major–Clinton era, but there will be little warmth either. At least when Candidate Obama came to London in the summer, Brown could let him hold a press conference outside the door of Number 10, giving Obama some presidential sheen. This time round, seeing as Brown explicitly said he wasn’t going to Washington to talk about ‘war’, all the Prime Minister could offer the President is a promise that he’ll try to be a good chair of the G20 meeting.

Compounding this problem for Brown is the fact that as soon as the G20 is over, Obama is off to a Nato summit co-hosted by France and Germany. Sarkozy intends to steal this show by announcing that France will return to Nato’s military command. British hopes of winning special praise there for our role in Afghanistan have been dented by the American forces’ ever-growing concern about our military’s performance; in Washington no one dissents when American officers and officials say that the British were ‘defeated’ in Basra. But there has also been an embarrassing diplomatic blunder. Britain expended considerable amounts of capital in getting our officials involved in the Petraeus review of Afghan policy, a review that Obama has decided to trump — because he knows he won’t like its conclusions. This error is really one that the embassy should have stopped Whitehall from making. The embassy, though, will soon be under new management, as the Tories plan to replace the ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald.

The smarter Labour strategists are keen to downplay the idea that Obama’s blessing can cure Brown of his low poll ratings. Instead, they argue that it is ‘still the economy, stupid’ — but that the economy can only recover with co-ordinated global action, so Brown needs the G20 to be a substantive, not just a stylistic, success. Others are more dismissive: one influential Labour MP just said ‘not going to happen’ when asked about the prospects of a Brown comeback.

The often chaotic nature of this trip, in contrast to the first Camp David summit in 2007 between Brown and Bush, told a story both about the disintegration of the Brown operation and the new administration’s lack of interest in helping out their guest. The absence of a formal press conference was a brutal illustration that the Obama administration doesn’t regard Brown’s political survival as important enough to merit breaking its routine. The British press coverage on Wednesday, emphasising the ‘snub’, was a reminder of just how dangerous it is to let expectations spin out of control, a mistake an increasingly desperate Brown team keeps making.

The problem with the G20 strategy is that, when it is over, there will be nothing else in the diary to look forward to. If there is no turnaround in Brown’s fortunes, and — even worse — if the event backfires, then the Labour party will become even more fractious. Brown will have to contend with the more ambitious members of his party positioning themselves for all the contests — party leader, deputy leader shadow cabinet elections — that will follow the general election.

Obama’s attitude to the special relationship, though, should encourage the Tories. Obama is not an instinctive Anglophile like Clinton or the Bushes, and his Kenyan ancestry means that he is unlikely to see American hegemony as another chapter in the global mission of the English-speaking peoples. But his decision to invite the British prime minister to Washington before Angela Merkel or Sarkozy — knowing that Mr Brown will be sending only one more set of Christmas cards from 10 Downing Street — was significant; a clear sign that Obama views Britain as America’s most important European ally.

There is a tendency in Britain to dismiss the special relationship, to argue that we delude ourselves if we think it means anything to America. But there is a special relationship, one that the French and German ambassadors in Washington must have been all too aware of when they had to once again explain why the British prime minister was the first European visitor to the Oval Office. The pulling power of a leader can be explained by an equation: the importance of the country multiplied by the charm and diplomatic skills of the office holder. That Brown got to the Oval Office before anyone else in Europe speaks volumes about this country’s importance.

The shared ties of culture and language and the long history of security co-operation do give Britain a privileged position in Washington. This position, though, will slip if Britain is no longer seen as the one nation that is a genuinely useful global military ally. A British prime minister who goes to Washington, as Brown did this week, promising not to talk of war, squanders much of what makes the special relationship special. That’s the lesson that Brown’s successors should take from this trip.