15 Jan 2015

Election 2015 – whose side is Obama on?

​​The UK election debate on the economy is being fought out in Washington today.

The PM’s team are delighted with a joint President Obama/David Cameron article in The Times today that, inter alia, touches on the economy and gives you the impression the two men share the same economic outlook.

They’re also directing us to IMF boss Christine Lagarde’s speech in Washington and the gloomy global economic outlook in it saying that proves the need to keep on course and not change tack in the British general election.

But who should I see wandering down K Street in Washington but Ed Balls, in the middle of a tour of Obama economic chiefs, launching an international report backing Labour’s policies – looking for all the world like he’s got the backing of the Obama top table for his economic take.

That’s certainly what he thinks from his chats on Capitol Hill, where he reports deep unease about the Tories’ planned referendum on EU membership and much else too.

So what’s going on?

One senior Labour figure was pretty taken aback when I told him the extent of President Obama’s red carpet treatment for David Cameron this week: a working dinner tonight, an overnight stay in Blair House, then more talks on Friday morning.

Another Labour shadow cabinet member thought it probably was all about “payback” for David Cameron’s visit to the US in 2012, when he joined President Obama on a major photo op aimed at helping with the mid-terms and showing US voters that President Obama had friends on the Right and wasn’t as left-wing as they might fear.

Some are pretty sure there’s also an element of “payback” for Ed Miliband’s opposition to Syria attacks in 2013.

No.10 folk talk of a bond between the President and the Prime Minister which comes from past work together but also a shared approach to the job. President Obama is said to sympathise with the stick David Cameron sometimes gets for “chillaxing” and sees them as kindred spirits – if not blood bro’s – who wear the burdens of office lightly.

In Iowa yesterday, President Obama told Americans his economic policies which included a stimulus that would’ve made George Osborne faint, had delivered economic recovery to the US.

But in The Times, he writes: “Over the past few years, (the UK and US) governments have worked closely to restore economic growth, improve our living standards and make sure families get the help they needed.” The phrase “living standards” and the argument that David Cameron’s done diddly squat to help them are at the heart of Ed Miliband’s campaign. No.10 staffers must’ve punched the air when they appeared to get the President signing up to the opposite view.

Labour chiefs say they’re pretty sanguine about all this.

The President did meet Ed Miliband last year, albeit in a more low-key way. That’s just part of being in opposition, they say. More importantly, they argue that the Tories are consistently failing to make the most of their set-piece moments, failing to get any poll lift from the Autumn Statement or the dossier that started the January campaign.

They argue they will similarly fail to get political capital from this meeting in DC or the “flags and fireplaces” photo opportunity with Chancellor Merkel. At some point, they suspect, this failure to break out of the electoral doldrums will unnerve the Tory high command and see internal squabbles and maybe even some policy lurches.

David Cameron touches down in Washington this evening. That guest house he is staying in was acquired to give the Roosevelts some privacy as Winston Churchill’s war-time stopovers in Washington became more frequent and quite extended.

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter

Tweets by @garygibbonc4