A few thoughts about the Obama/Cameron op-ed in today’s Times:

  • The tussle over the debates is all about prestige. As Tony Blair knew when he rejected debates with his opponents, a sitting Prime Minister (like them or not) gets some free gravitas from their job title – stooping to appear on an equal footing with your competitors effectively grants them the right to run some of it off you and onto themselves.
  • It’s that Prime Ministerial sheen which Ed Miliband desperately lacks – hence the hiring of a staff member to introduce him to celebrities, hence the manufactured outrage that he wasn’t invited to meet Chancellor Merkel (it turned out she didn’t want to meet him) and hence Labour’s visible pain every time Blair pops up to say Ed’s really great on political philosophy, pointedly falling short of praising him as a human or a politician.
  • So today’s joint op-ed in The Times by President Obama and Cameron will hit the Opposition leader where it hurts most – particularly in terms of morale and reputation. Last summer Miliband struggled to get a 25 minute ‘brush by’ with the President, and Labour still bear the psychological scars of Gordon Brown chasing Obama through the kitchens of the UN like a grouchier version of Liam Neeson in Taken. Battling for a few minutes of conversation and a handshake snap is an achievement that rather wilts in the face of your opponent securing a 788 word joint opinion piece with the guy.
  • Worse for Miliband is the fact that the article is fundamentally an endorsement of Cameron’s approach to the economy. During his Washington trip, he told the press ‘Whether you think about trade and jobs or terrorism and climate change, we’ve got to work with the United States…As somebody who wants to be the prime minister in less than 10 months’ time, it’s important I’m here talking to key figures in the administration about the many pressing issued that our country faces and indeed the world faces’. Whoops, now the US administration is publicly endorsing Cameron on the whole shebang.
  • While American politics doesn’t automatically read across to its British equivalent – Democrat Presidents have got on with Tory Prime Ministers, as have their Republicans and Labour equivalents – remember how deeply invested in Obamamania the modern Labour Party became. They see themselves as the natural allies of the Democrats, and have identified as often as possible with Obama, in the hope that his fairy dust will rub off on them.
  • That said, getting the endorsement of a US President certainly makes you more statesmanlike than if you didn’t get the endorsement, but let’s not pretend this is Obama at the peak of his powers. He’s battered by events and scandals, greyed and lined by the pressures of office rather than burnished as he was when “Yes we can” first took off. As a result it will probably depress Labour more than it will inspire the Tories – but it’s a win Downing Street will certainly take.
  • I suspect that’s why, as a belt and braces approach, you’ll find George Osborne on the front page of the Telegraph declaring that Britain will become more wealthy than the US by 2030. It’s nice to have the President’s agreement, but here’s some reassurance that the Government hasn’t forgotten that our ally is still a competitor in the global race. Anyone tempted to grouse that the Yanks are poking their noses in to our business may be somewhat calmed by the message that while they’re our friends, we still intend to outdo them.
  • Of course, the economy isn’t the only topic which the two men touch on in their article. While it remains the fundamental issue of the General Election, the Paris attacks mean that security and combating terrorism get a prominent place, too. Just as Cameron’s argument about the NHS hinges on the idea that you can’t afford it unless you have a healthy economy, so they argue today that defending our freedom requires prosperity.
  • It’s perfectly consistent to make such an argument – indeed, you could go further by arguing that free trade and the prosperity it brings is the only way that developing nations struck by terrorism will eventually become strong enough to overcome it. But there is a glitch in part of the case – if, as they suggest, economic strength and ‘the values that we cherish’ are equally important in defending ourselves, then why are those values (summarised as ‘freedom of expression, the rule of law and strong democratic institutions’) under attack by the Government in the aftermath of events in Paris?
  • Number 10 has allowed it to be known that Cameron will specifically ask Obama for co-operation in data-gathering by American social media companies, as part of the reintroduction of the Snoopers’ Charter. That doesn’t exactly fit with the idea that those values of liberty are thought by both administrations to be crucial to our safety. It also presents a challenge to the overall argument that growth, liberty and security are three legs of the same stool – Cameron has written that all three work in concert, but in practice he is going to ask the White House to impinge on the economic prospects of the booming digital sector and the privacy of those companies’ users in order to make our countries more secure.