Nigel Fletcher is Director of the recently formed Opposition Studies Forum. He is a councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich, and a former Special Adviser in the Conservative Research Department. Here he considers how previous Leaders of the Opposition have fared in their dealings with US Presidents.
Amid the Obama-mania of yesterday, the US President’s half-hour meeting with David Cameron was but one engagement in a very busy day. But its significance has certainly been noted in Westminster and Whitehall. Mr Cameron’s staff were at pains last week to play down expectations of such a meeting, correctly pointing out that as an inter-Governmental visit, it would not be usual for Opposition politicians to play a role. Only on State Visits is it customary for the visiting Head of State to meet the Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat leader (as the latter has reportedly pointed out in frustration).
So the invitation for Mr Cameron to meet President Obama was quite a coup. Even a quick handshake between the two would have been notable, but the White House went out of its way to boost the Conservative leader’s status. Announcing the meeting to the Washington press corps last week, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough put him in esteemed company:
Such a seal of approval from the White House is a prize many previous Leaders of the Opposition have sought over the years, with varying degrees of success. Whilst the fluctuating relationship of the tenants of Downing Street and the White House has been the subject of much psycho- analysis over the years, there is an equally fascinating but largely untold story about the relationship between British opposition leaders and the American President.
It is not difficult to see why the most powerful man on earth should hold a fascination for the holder of an office defined by its powerlessness. A Leader of the Opposition may always be an alternative Prime Minister, but their real aim is to be seen as the next Prime Minister. They receive a huge boost to their credibility when it seems foreign governments are seeing them that way. Equally, an incumbent world leader has an interest in getting to know someone who may soon be joining them on the world stage.
Harold Wilson, in his first few months as Leader of the Opposition in 1963, lost no time in making the pilgrimage to Washington to see President Kennedy. His visit, exactly 36 years ago this week, was not popular with the Prime Minister of the day, as archive papers now reveal. Harold Macmillan wrote a rather sniffy telegram to the British Ambassador in Washington, in which he remarked:
"No doubt Wilson will talk a good deal to everybody, including the President, about what he intends to do as Prime Minister. I will not comment on the propriety of this performance, but I think that you ought to warn the President that in my view Wilson has not found his feet yet. In any case I expect the Americans, or at least the minority who are politicians, will realise that they should not take Wilson’s views too seriously."
The Ambassador duly reported back that he "had a word with the President" and that Kennedy had told him he would assume anything said in their meeting would be used for political purposes by Wilson. The Ambassador then remarked on "a marked lack of enthusiasm for the visit among the Administration", before adding somewhat undiplomatically "those who have already met him dislike him, and those that have not distrust him. I don’t think we are in for a very happy four days".
Later that year, Kennedy visited Prime Minister Macmillan at his country home, Birch Grove in Sussex, and stayed overnight. Wilson’s staff contacted the American Embassy to try and arrange for him to see the President during his stay. The Embassy replied that it would be a matter for the British Government, and the request was passed to Number 10. Macmillan must have enjoyed writing to Wilson to tell him that it would not be possible as "the time for discussions will be very limited" and that "President Kennedy’s short stay is of course rather different from more formal visits of other Heads of Government".
Wilson was not best pleased, and the snub was leaked to the Sunday Times where it appeared under the headline "Mr Wilson will not meet the President". The article reported that "no request for a meeting with Mr Wilson has been made by President Kennedy, or by any of the senior officials travelling with him. They felt that this was a matter for the President’s host".
The next time Wilson met an American President was March 1964, when he visited Washington and called on President Johnson. According to the White House minutes of the meeting, "The President told Mr. Wilson he was glad to see him again and Mr. Wilson recalled that he had last been in the White House in April 1963, though he had come to Washington since then at the time of the funeral ceremony for President Kennedy". The two then had a wide-ranging discussion on issues from Cuba and Cyprus to nuclear weapons and British domestic politics. With an election not far off, and Wilson looking likely to win it, the "lack of enthusiasm" of the Kennedy administration had to be overcome.
By contrast, Margaret Thatcher’s accession to the Conservative leadership a decade later in 1975 left the United States distinctly underwhelmed. The US State Department had sent a memo to the White House reporting that Edward Heath had been "unexpectedly defeated as Opposition Leader" but concluded "It is doubtful that Mrs Thatcher will win on the second ballot. A more likely victor is popular Willie Whitelaw…"
The following week a contrite State Department reported that "Margaret Thatcher soundly defeated four opponents to capture the leadership of the Conservative Party, replacing former Prime Minister Edward Heath". The note then made the damning assessment that "Since no British General Election is expected for the foreseeable future, US-UK relations are unaffected. To win a future election she will have to more an appreciable distance from her position on the right wing of her party".
Nevertheless, When Mrs Thatcher announced she would be visiting the US that September and requested a meeting with President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised the White House that: "The Department endorses the request as being in keeping with our close relations with the British. I concur that an office call by Mrs Thatcher on the President would be appropriate and desirable". The visit went ahead, and was judged a success by the British Ambassador to Washington.
Two years later, in May 1977, Thatcher met Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter. As with yesterday’s Obama-Cameron meeting, this took place at Winfield House, the US Ambassador's residence in Regent's Park. Unlike yesterday, the request for the meeting definitely came from the Leader of the Opposition’s office. White House records show President Carter was advised by his Embassy in London that:
"It is important for you to see Mrs Thatcher in London, perhaps for a 10-minute courtesy call. This will help to ensure that your travel to the North of England is not read as unduly political in England, a country with a strong sense of ‘fair play.’ There is also a good chance that Mrs Thatcher will eventually become Prime Minister; this could even happen before her scheduled visit here this fall."
In the event of course, Mrs Thatcher did not take office for another two years, during which she met Carter again in the White House, for a less successful meeting in September 1977. The records of this meeting are still closed, but historians at the Thatcher Archive conclude that Carter formed a poor impression of her "finding her outlook dogmatic and her manner hectoring". Afterwards he reportedly instructed staff never again to schedule him to meet an opposition leader.
This clash could have seriously damaged US-UK relations, but by the time of Mrs Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, a State Department memorandum advised the President that they believed "the new PM to be a cooler, wiser, more pragmatic person now than the Opposition Leader you met in May 1977 or the dogmatic lady who visited you in Washington that fall". The files show Carter shared this view, writing "I agree" in the margin.
The battle for favour at the White House has been continued by every Opposition since, with mixed results. Neil Kinnock was famously embarrassed by President Reagan, who turned an invitation to the White House into a poison chalice for the Labour leadership. Tony Blair was greeted warmly by President Clinton in 1996, whilst in the wake of a row over the Iraq war Michael Howard was allegedly told by President Bush’s staff "You can forget about meeting the President full stop. Don't bother coming, you are not meeting him."
If that marked the low point in relations between the Shadow Cabinet Room and the Oval Office, yesterday’s meeting showed things are very much on the up. The State Department has clearly decided it may soon be required to prepare another briefing on a "new PM".