Barack Obama's decision to visit Britain during an election campaign was controversial enough. His writing an article against Brexit in the Daily Telegraph was more controversial still. But to stand in Downing Street and threaten his host country with being dumped 'at the back of the queue' for trade talks should it choose to leave the EU is, I think, too much. It’s precisely the comment that could backfire, and spark indignation. And make people ask: who on earth is Obama to come to Britain and speak to us in this way? I've just recorded a podcast about this with James Forsyth. Here it is:-
It wasn’t what Obama said, as such. Even the EU doesn’t have a free trade deal with the US, and I doubt it will ever agree a proper one. The problem is the dismissive way in which Obama spoke about Britain: as a country that’s too small to be worth bothering with on its own. A country that might matter, as part of a massive block of the EU, but is too tiny for his ever-so-busy officials in the State Department to bother with. Many countries want a trade deal with America and the U.K. would not just in a queue but at the "back of the queue" in spite of being the USA's no1 inward investor. Because it would be 'hugely inefficient' for the United States to open trade talks with Britain, due to the 'heavy lift' of such talks.
The heavy lift. An interesting phrase. In recent years, when America has come looking for allies to help with 'heavy lifting' in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain was there. Most of Europe wasn't. When diplomatic 'heavy lifting' needed to be done in Obama's deal with Iran, Britain was there – backing him to the hilt, even though Iranians have been responsible for the deaths of British servicemen. The 'heavy lifting' that Britain has been doing for the US – in the name of liberty – has been as much, often more, than our shrinking military could bear. But we did it, because that's what allies are for.
But, Obama now says, when it comes to the 'heavy lifting' of a telephone when it comes to trade talks, well - that would be too much of an ask. Don't we know the State Department is busy? Yes, Britain may have answered when the White House called in its time of need. But should we choose to leave the EU, and make our own way in the world by striking new alliances, we'd find ourselves relegated to the 'back of the queue'. We're told that Obama has been here to be a 'candid friend' and he has, today, certainly been candid. But is this really the language of a friend?
This is why prime ministers and presidents avoid visiting each other's countries during election campaigns: they end up hyping things up (as happens during elections) and taking sides on a question that splits the country, and earning the enmity of half of that country rather than furthering relations. Tim Montgomerie's superb cover piece this week explains how Obama has spent eight years being divisive, rather than the uniter that he once pledged to be. Today, Britain has seen this side to him.
PS - The Coffee House podcast is a new thing, separate to Isabel Hardman's weekly magazine podcast. You can subscribe to it on the iTunes store here.