Here Comes The Junior Partner

Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, talks to TIME about his first official visit to the U.S. Why the man and his politics are worth watching

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk with umbrellas in the rain as they arrive in Toronto for the G-20 Summit, June 26, 2010

Britons — disinclined to trust their politicians farther than they can throw them — are beginning to realize that their new Prime Minister is a man of his word. David Cameron's austerity program is every bit as beastly as he promised. Before May's general election, Cameron warned the voters of "economic pain" in the shape of swift and eye-watering cuts to Britain's public expenditure. He made good on that pledge a mere 42 days after taking office, proposing to cut spending by £30 billion ($45.5 billion) a year, freeze public-sector pay, hack back the welfare bill and increase value-added tax on all but essential goods and services. As controversy roils and amid threats of strikes by public-sector workers, who would blame Cameron if he extended his forthcoming two-day jaunt to the U.S. by a week, perhaps two?

In a conversation with TIME just before his trip, Cameron professed a "very strong attachment to America" and said he is looking forward to visiting Washington and New York City. That's hardly surprising. Abroad often represents a pleasant haven for politicians tired of domestic struggles, and the U.S. has proved especially benign to British Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher always found a warm welcome at Ronald Reagan's White House. Tony Blair was feted in Washington as his popularity curdled at home. Even Gordon Brown found audiences in the U.S. ready to applaud his role in saving the global banking system. Cameron hasn't yet made his mark on the world stage but at least knows that when he calls on President Obama and others, a wide expanse of ocean will separate him from his critics back home.

Unfortunately for him, there's that other stretch of water, off the southern coast of the U.S. The explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico triggered a crisis that risked polluting U.S.-U.K. relations as severely as it did the Gulf. Cameron had the tricky task of being expected to defend BP while striving to establish good working relations with the Obama Administration. "You've got the press sort of barraging you to start lobbing grenades into the White House, but that's not actually the way you get things done," he says. "I made the case that I thought that quiet diplomacy was better for us than grenades. And funnily enough, I was backed in that by what BP themselves wanted." BP, he says, wants "to clear up the mess, stop the spill, pay compensation. But what's important at the end of all of this is [that BP] is still a stable and strong company."

The BP spill means that Cameron's first official U.S. visit could never have been simply a jolly. That apart, there are a host of big issues he's tabled to hash out: economic recovery, Afghanistan and security and intelligence cooperation. British and American interests are inextricably intertwined. The discussions awaiting Cameron across the Atlantic will be quite as decisive in shaping his premiership as the debates he leads in Britain. And because successive U.S. administrations have come to depend on Britain to uncomplainingly support America's global objectives, the outcome could matter almost as much for the U.S. as for its smaller ally.

The Junior Partner
If you doubt that assessment, consider Cameron's predecessor-but-one. Blair's instinctive backing for U.S. policy after Sept. 11, 2001, not only undermined his own premiership but possibly didn't help the U.S. much either. Blair believed he should offer unconditional support to America rather than negotiate hard for national interests. As he told Britain's official inquiry into the Iraq war in January, "This is an alliance that we have with the United States of America. It is not a contract. It is not 'We do this for you, you do this for us.'" Blair added, "As I always say to people, you can distance yourself from America if you want to, but you will find it is a long way back."

Britain's current Prime Minister is by no means alone in thinking it might have been better for both Britain and the U.S. if Blair had distanced himself enough to offer robust constructive criticism to President George W. Bush. Before he came to power, Cameron told TIME, "Blair [to America] was too much the new friend telling you everything you want to hear rather than the best friend telling you what you need to hear." British leaders, Cameron says, need to understand that they have limited sway in Washington. "We should always be conscious of the fact that we're the junior partner in this relationship and America is a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic power. I think that we should deal with things as they are rather than trying to be too needy."

So pronounced is Cameron's determination to recalibrate relations with the U.S. that some Atlanticists have feared the dawn of a new ice age. Obama has evinced none of the sentimental affection for Britain displayed by many of his recent predecessors, and Cameron and many of his closest associates have little of the romantic attachment to the U.S. that was so much a part of the political makeup of Thatcher, Blair and Brown. But the new Prime Minister has no intention of needlessly distancing himself from Washington. "I think it is a special relationship," says Cameron of the alliance. "I think it's an essential relationship for us."

It may help that Cameron, 43, seems temperamentally disposed to get on well with Obama. (The body language between the two of them at the recent G-20 summit was notably relaxed.) Both men are seriously clever and, one suspects, don't mind who knows it. Both are controlled, data-driven and pragmatic. Cameron praises Obama's "calm appreciation of the big picture" and says the President is "a very easy man to get on with. He has enormous command of the subject, handles the G-8, G-20 meetings I think brilliantly in terms of trying to get people to focus on what matters ... He has a great grip and a great grasp, and it's impressive to see."

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