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All “sizzle” and no substance

There is increasing anxiety within the Obama administration over the foreign policy of Cameron, a ma

From across the Atlantic comes more detail about Barack Obama's opinion of David Cameron. Last year, I reported that the then presidential candidate had emerged from a meeting with the Tory leader describing him as a "lightweight". Now it is claimed that Obama also said that Cameron is all "sizzle" and no substance.

The colourful verdict was apparently the result of meetings with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Cameron on 26 July last year, at the end of a Continental tour. I have been contacted by a senior figure at a respected national newspaper who gave me an account of the meetings from an Obama aide. After taking breakfast with Blair, visiting Brown in Downing Street and meeting Cameron in parliament, Obama is said to have given the following verdict: Blair was "sizzle and substance"; Brown was "substance"; Cameron was merely "sizzle".

Two days earlier, Obama had delivered a pro-European speech in front of 200,000 people in Berlin, dismissing "voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe's role in . . . our future". The president has also said he regards the EU - as opposed to the UK - as his country's key ally.
The Tory leader, who has isolated his party in Europe, appears to be at odds with Obama in this and other areas. Indeed, while Obama opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning, Cameron (it is often forgotten) supported the war. Cameron told Obama during the recorded section of their chat last July that "judgement" is key to success as a leader. Yet his attempts to compare himself to Obama as a "change" candidate are not borne out by substance. The neoconservatism and free-marketeerism of his top team are opposed to the values of Obama's administration.

Most recently, Obama's aides have been alarmed by Cameron's European alliance with Michal Kaminski, a former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland (NOP) party. I have learned that a 29 July column by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian - echoing my own report of Jewish leaders' concerns over Kaminski in last week's NS - has been circulated inside the Obama camp. One Democratic Party source close to the administration confirmed to me: "Your assumptions about the beliefs of Obama's foreign policy team are correct - there are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team."

Meanwhile, David Rothkopf, the respected US foreign policy expert and former deputy under-secretary for international trade under Bill Clinton, has broken ranks to say the unsayable: "I used to think David Cameron was just an empty suit. But it is increasingly clear that the former PR guy . . . ought to be ditched at the altar both by the British people and by the Obama administration."

The Tory decision to be led by Kaminski in the European Parliament, Rothkopf said, "makes [Cameron] an even more dubious choice to be Britain's next prime minister than he was before and, should he attain that post, someone about whom the Obama administration ought to be very cautious. A pillar of leadership acumen he ain't."

My "sizzle" source says the account of Obama's response to meeting with Cameron was withheld from publication after a last-minute appeal from the aide. Views of opposition leaders across the Atlantic are a sensitive subject, as John Major found to his cost after endorsing George Bush Sr over Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. But with the Conservatives apparently cruising to election victory, the British electorate surely has a right to know the US president's views on the man who would be prime minister.

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The Observer carried a long opinion article on 2 August by Richard Reeves, the smooth head of Demos, the once-left-of-centre think tank that critics claim has been "compromised" by the appointment of the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, to its advisory board. After asserting that the Conservatives will win the next election, Reeves repeats the claim that the Tory leadership represents the true "progressive" force in British politics today (despite the party's pledge to cut inheritance tax for estates worth less than £1m and their ideological commitment to spending cuts)Demos's positioning on the Tories has changed since the departure of Phillip Blond, the "Red Tory" whose social conservatism and redistributive economics are the opposite of David Cameron's neoliberalism. Now it is said that Blond was eased out as director of Demos's Progressive Conservatism project after senior Tories dismissed him as "too red and not Tory enough". Reeves is clearly keen to influence those he is certain will form the next government.

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If Reeves is right and Labour does lose, will Peter Mandelson become the party's next leader (part three)? According to Ladbrokes, bookmakers have built up liabilities worth "hundreds of thousands of pounds" on the possibility. "The Business Secretary was a 200-1 no-hoper just a few months ago," the bookie says. "But amid suggestions that he could be handed a safe Labour seat in order to pick up the pieces of an election defeat, money has continued to flow and he is now just 16-1." Alan Johnson remains favourite at 11-8, with Harriet Harman second at 5-1. Both Miliband brothers, David and Ed, came next, on 8-1 each. But the Ladbrokes spokesman, Robin Hutchison, also notes: "The hoops Mandelson would have to jump through to become party leader make 16-1 look a short price. But the hard cash flowing from the wallets of Westminster insiders would suggest the hoops are being lined up. He is by a country mile the worst result in our next Labour leader book and we may yet have to ask a Russian billionaire for a loan."

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads