Washington doesn’t care about British prime ministers

Rishi Sunak in Washington
Rishi Sunak in Washington

The benchmark by which Rishi Sunak’s visit to the United States will be measured is a high one.

Britain’s two longest-serving post-war prime ministers enjoyed rapturous friendships, not just positive diplomatic relationships, with their opposite numbers in the White House. Margaret Thatcher found a “political soulmate” in Ronald Reagan, the two forming an unbreakable alliance against the spread of communism and their own domestic challenges.

Nearly a generation later, Tony Blair surprised many when he found common cause with Reagan’s Republican successor (and the son of his own vice-president) George W. Bush, with whom he forged a rather different military alliance in the “War on Terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Blair had also enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with W’s Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton; both men faced the same task of modernising their parties and designing messages relevant to the 21st century after a string of electoral defeats.

That level of common ground and intellectual convergence is simply not present in the relationship between Sunak and Joe Biden. And it is not just this prime minister whose relationship with the current Commander-in-Chief appears lukewarm in comparison; Gordon Brown and Obama, David Cameron and Obama, Theresa May and Trump – the post-Blair transatlantic relationships between prime minister and president have hardly looked “special”.

Perhaps the odds have been stacked against Sunak and Biden. The Thatcher and Blair transatlantic relationships were exceptional, not typical. Who could forget Neil Kinnock’s US trip in 1987. The Labour leader, accompanied by his shadow foreign secretary Denis Healey, was humiliated by Reagan during a very brief pre-general election visit to Washington. Reagan failed to recognise Healey, and spent much of the meeting castigating Kinnock for his anti-nuclear defence policy.

No such humiliation has awaited Sunak: following the chaos of the last few years and the characters who have occupied both Downing Street and the White House, we have two more muted personalities in the room. But there will be little chemistry between Sunak and Biden. Our departure from the EU impacted on Anglo-American relations: Biden has carried out his pre-election threat of scuppering the idea of a post-Brexit free trade agreement.

In recent days, ambitions for the trip appear to have been scaled back, and now focus primarily on cultivating AI’s potential while ensuring the regulation is in place to avoid some of the more apocalyptic warnings. It is unlikely the Biden administration’s recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will be discussed. In true American political tradition, the Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation, but is a measure that commits hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidising “green” industries and technologies, and could prove a point of contention when the two men meet in the Oval Office. Sunak is known to regard it as protectionist (as does the EU). Further, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has also expressed her admiration for the IRA, which serves as some inspiration for her new “securonomics” strategy. There may not be much clear water between the Tory and Labour’s economic plans currently, but this surely marks a dividing line.

Given America’s global status, its economic clout and the glamour that attaches itself to the office of the president (even with an 80-year-old incumbent), any suggestion that our relationship with it is based on an equal partnership is absurd. Sunak knows this and can be expected to manage expectations accordingly. His chief aim will be to avoid any impression that Biden doesn’t take him or his government seriously, that he is simply waiting for Labour, with which the Democrats have a long and close relationship, to return to office.

If the Prime Minister can return to these shores with some hard concessions in his back pocket, concessions that will materially benefit British businesses, then by any recent comparison, he can consider his mission accomplished.

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