One of the golden rules of international diplomacy is that visiting presidents and prime ministers don’t interfere, attempt to influence or take sides in the electoral decisions of the country they are visiting.
Imagine how America’s political establishment, media and millions of voters would have reacted if Cameron had been in New York last week and said something like: “If Donald Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton wins the presidential race, then I have to tell you that that would raise a number of difficulties between our countries. So be really careful how you vote in November.”
But interfere and take a side is precisely what Obama did on Friday: and he did it with Cameron’s permission. He threatened the United Kingdom with Cameron’s permission. He treated us to the ‘soft power’ equivalent of ‘shock and awe’ with Cameron’s permission. He sent a very clear message to Cameron’s political and electoral opponents with Cameron’s permission.
And when it was over he had the added pleasure of listening to a simpering, whimpering Cameron say; “I’m honoured to have Barack as a friend. I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to be Prime Minister and to stand outside the White House listening to this man, my friend Barack, say that the special relationship between our countries has never been stronger.”
Later in the day the president glad-handed with the Royals, played with Prince George, patronised the flunkies and then, for good measure, had an ‘audience’ on Saturday with the usual rent-a-sycophant mob who are drafted in by Downing Street because it’s known that they will never ask a difficult question, restrain their adulation or do anything that might risk their membership of the ‘we’ll-do-anything-to-look-important’ club.
Maybe the president should have opened a history book and reminded himself of how his own country dealt with this sort of ‘friendly influence’ a couple of centuries ago. There were no rocking horses and picture books for that particular George!
So why did Cameron give the nod of approval? Probably because he knows that it’s not just enough to win on June 23. He has to win by a whopping, stonking majority. He has to close down this issue for at least a generation. He has to emerge strong enough to punish his internal enemies and banish them – emasculated and crippled – to the backbenches. He has to give Ukip the sort of beating that forces the retirement of Farage, followed by implosion and civil war. He has, unlike the result of the Scottish referendum, to emerge stronger than he was at the start of the campaign.
That can be boiled down to two priorities: he has to scare the disinterested and undecided into the Remain camp and he has to rattle the Leave camp so badly that they begin to fall apart at the top.
So when the most powerful political figure in the world – who also claims to be your special friend – tells you that you’ll be at the “back of the queue” in future, that tends to spook people. It tends to make them err on the side of caution and vote for imperfect certainty rather than the certainty of risk.
It’s what MacNeice described as the choice between ‘authentic mammon and a bogus god’. It’s a powerful card to play in terms of tactics, but it’s also a weak one in terms of vision and psychology, because it suggests fear of the unknown; and no country has even been great again when it begins to fear the unknown.
But the other thing Obama’s intervention has done is, as the Americans themselves like to say, “put it up to our opponents”. Cameron is daring his enemies – and there really is no other word for them now – to set out their road map and provide costed, certain, substantive answers to the difficult questions. He’s daring them to move beyond the jingoistic, emotional rhetoric of ‘a nation once again’ and say how they’ll replace agreements, secure borders, prioritise spending, build new international relationships and bolster the United Kingdom’s influence and prestige in a world that is no longer the world of the 1950s, let alone 1850s.
In a column for the News Letter a few weeks ago – and regular readers will know that I’m in the Leave camp – I argued that a hand-me-down reproduction of a green and pleasant land wasn’t going to be enough to win over the genuinely undecided. They need reassurances on jobs, pensions, taxes, cost of living and internal security. They don’t love the European Union: but nor do they hate it so much that that they’re prepared to give a blank cheque to people like Farage, Gove and Johnson – all of whom have a Marmite quality to them.
The fact that Cameron can’t win, or feels that he can’t win, without Obama on board is interesting; because it suggests that Cameron is scared. He is right to be. He scraped a victory in the Scottish referendum. He scraped a victory in the general election. A majority of his MPs and his grassroots membership don’t support him on EU membership. Victory on June 23 depends on him winning over millions of people who, like him, are not natural conservatives.
But he also knows that victory has to be big, so he’s banking on the probability that the Leave camp don’t have much beyond the rhetoric and what sometimes sounds like blind faith in the existence of a post-EU utopia. He took a risk with the Obama card. It’s now up to his opponents to trump that card.