4 Nov 2010

Will David Cameron stick by Barack Obama?

The US midterm election results suggest Americans think Obama has got it wrong on the economy. But what does that mean for Britain, David Cameron and our own economic recovery, Gaby Hinsliff asks.

The US midterm results show Americans' displeasure at the continuing economic crisis. But what will happen in Britain? (Reuters)

The publication of President George W Bush’s memoirs next week is a timely reminder, following this week’s midterm elections, of just how painfully reliant British governments are on decisions made in Washington.

The wars Bush and Tony Blair fought together defined the latter’s premiership perhaps beyond anything he did alone. So are Barack Obama and David Cameron now similarly yoked together by the economic crisis?

Read the Channel 4 News special report on the economy: from crash to cuts

Recovery from recession is the critical issue of their time, as 9/11 was for Bush and Blair, but so far they have chosen different solutions: Obama’s emphasis on stimulus now and cuts later is closer to the British left’s position than the Coalition’s.

But the midterm results suggest many Americans think Obama has called it wrong: half say he has the wrong priorities for the country, 56 per cent think the state is doing too much. What lessons can politicians here draw from that?

High expectations

Some Labour MPs will hope Obama’s troubles mean things could sour just as quickly for Cameron, who once campaigned on similarly “hopey changey” messages. But that’s to misunderstand the way Cameron shifted from optimism to austerity during the election campaign – and the fact that Obama won amid such impossibly high expectations he was almost bound to disappoint, while Cameron scraped home.

Some Conservatives meanwhile will undoubtedly welcome the Democrat drubbing as evidence of the tide turning towards British-style austerity measures and rolling back the state.

The only problem is that if Obama has called the recovery wrong, it may not help Britain much to be right. A flatlining America means millions of consumers spending less, harming our chances of growth: lame duck presidents create uncertainty and unpredictability, which markets hate.

Meanwhile there are whispers that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives may challenge Obama’s plans for speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan – on which depend plans to bring British troops home early. Weakness in Washington ultimately does Downing Street no favours: that’s why, as Tony Blair did, British prime minsters often end up swallowing political differences and sticking with gritted teeth by the White House. Will Cameron do the same?

Gaby Hinsliff is the former Political Editor of the Observer newspaper.