Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Bad Timing

Why exactly is Gordon Brown visiting the US at the same time as the Pope?

It can't exactly have been unplanned or accidental, as it was when the funeral of the previous pontiff coincided with the nuptials of Charles Windsor and Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles. These trips, except in situations of international emergencies (or funerals) are always planned weeks if not months in advance. The diaries of major political leaders are not usually their own. Private secretaries and advisers devote themselves to schedule-fixing. The leader's day is planned minutely. These days, with professionalised media management at a premium, a potential disaster on this scale ought to have been spotted some miles off.

It's not even as though this is just some routine flying visit. Brown will be in America for a full three days, during which he will meet the presidential candidates, address the UN and conduct important financial discussions. Nor is a Scottish presbyterian likely to be pleased to find himself playing second fiddle to the Pope.

And while suggestions have been made that Brown actually wanted a low-key visit, that this was always going to be a serious visit, not some Blair-style PR junket, his advisers would surely have anticipated, and could not have desired, the British headlines and news-reports focusing on his embarrassingly low profile. And such claims are, in any case, belied by the blitz of TV interviews that Brown lined up in a major effort to remind, or more accurately inform, the American public that their best friend and greatest ally is no longer Tony Blair. In his push for Stateside celebrity Gordon even made a cringe-making appearance on American Idol: not, surely, the action of a man seeking to go unnoticed.

No, Gordon Brown did not intend to hide under Ratzo's chasuble.

Cock-up? Certainly. Conspiracy? Maybe. These things are after all arranged by the Foreign Office, currently led by Blairite torchbearer and wannabe Brownslayer David Miliband. A diplomatic embarrassment for Gordo might not be such a bad idea. Perhaps some such suggestion lay behind the indignant denial recorded this morning by Nick Robinson:

British officials are trying hard to hide their disappointment that the prime minister is not so much sharing the stage with the pontiff as being shoved into the wings. No, they say, THEY didn't know about the clash when the White House suggested the date for their man's visit.

So it was all the White House's fault? That would appear to be the Downing Street line, however sotto voce. Is the plan to hand out a humiliating rebuke for Brown's cold-shouldering of Dubya on his previous visit, at Camp David last year? One that occasion, the president spoke warmly of the "humorous Scotsman" and stressed the specialness of the special relationship, while Brown scarcely mentioned the man standing next to him at all and allowed his officials to brief that the two nations would no longer be "joined at the hip". He compounded the insult by appointing the rabidly anti-American Mark Malloch Brown as a Foreign Office minister. There followed the precipitate withdrawal from Basra, a strategically vital city left by the British in the hands of factional militias. American commanders in Iraq are now openly contemptuous of their supposed allies, a view increasingly shared by the general public.

For all his clichéd talk, on American TV, of his mission to be a bridge between Europe and America, Gordon Brown seems to have made a deliberate decision, when he became prime minister, to burn that bridge, sacrificing Britain's strategic interests by distancing himself from an unpopular president (and, by extension, from his own despised predecessor). At that time, he was the man of granite, dominating the political landscape. Arguably, Bush needed him more than he needed the president. Bush wasn't long for this world in any case: time enough, thought the prime minister, to sit out the next few months before bestowing his benediction on Hillary, who at that stage was looking almost as inevitable as Brown himself had done. As it is, a brief photo-call with Barack Obama may well be the prime minister's one small reward for all the jet-lag.

So now the White House gets its revenge: elegantly, without any open discourtesy. Brown will be greeted warmly and with all proper form. He will have his photo taken with Bush (another opportunity to practise his awkward smile); he will have talks; he will appear on TV. But he will be treated like some vaguely embarrassing poor relation who arrives to sit out a plumbing disaster at the same time as the family's daughter is getting married. Or possibly the Olympic torch.

The only other possibility is that Britain is now perceived by the White House as so irrelevant that it simply didn't occur to them that Brown's being upstaged by the Pope would be a problem. Either way, it doesn't look good.

If he were the president of some middling country in Latin America, perhaps GB might be satisfied with such treatment. But he isn't. For all the recent transatlantic divergences and differences of personality between the two leaders Britain remains militarily the USA's most important ally, and economically scarcely less so. He should be the only show in town.