David Cameron and Barack Obama arrived at the Foreign Office for their press conference today with two clear aims. The first was to impress upon everyone how well they get on, and in a rather cringeworthy manner. Cameron in particular was desperate to mention in almost every sentence the jolly good friendship that he had with his friend Barack. His friend who he is so close to that he doesn’t even need to mention his last name. But still needs to set out all the examples of how they are good friends, just in case anyone is in any doubt.
That friend Barack spent a lot of time talking, not just about his special friendship with his friend David (they’re friends, in case you hadn’t noticed), but everything else under the sun too, from Prince to a really rather dull anecdote about the Queen to illustrate the Special Relationship. Initially he was very keen to sound humble and gentle when it came to his views on the EU referendum, insisting that this was ultimately a matter for the British people, but that ‘part of being friends is to be honest and to let you know what I think’. He argued that the referendum ‘affects our prospects as well’, which all sounded very genial and not at all as though the President was lecturing voters… until Obama then argued that Britain would go to the ‘back of the queue’ when it came to negotiations for a UK-US trade deal.
First of all, let me repeat, this is a decision for the people of the United Kingdom to make. I not coming here to fix any votes. I’m not casting a vote myself. I’m offering my opinion. And, in democracies, everybody should want more information and not less. And you shouldn’t be afraid to hear an argument being made. That’s not a threat. That should enhance the debate.
Particularly because my understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we’ll take if the UK does leave the EU. So they say, for example, that ‘well, we’ll just cut our own trade deals with the United States’. So they’re voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do and I figured you might want to hear from the President of the United States what I think the United States is going to do.
And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc—the European Union—to get a trade agreement done.
And the UK is going to be at the back of the queue. Not because we don’t have a special relationship but because, given the heavy lift on any trade agreement, us having access to a big market with a lot of countries, rather than trying to do piecemeal trade agreements, is hugely inefficient.
This set a completely different tone: now Obama wasn’t just talking about his views but issuing a direct threat about the consequences of the referendum. That’s more textbook Project Fear than platitudes about what’s in the American and British interest. It fits in perfectly with the tone of the Remain campaign, sowing doubt in voters’ minds about what will happen to the British economy if the country votes to leave. But it will also agitate those Eurosceptic Tories who are already furious about the way the US President has been harnessed by the In campaign.