One of the many roles of a British Prime Minister is to be Brand Director or Head of PR for UK plc, something which Tony Blair, for all his faults, accomplished rather well. Even Gordon Brown, never one of nature’s meeters and greeters, gave authoritative and credible performances on the world stage when contributing Britain’s views and ideas on how to combat the recession.
Now David Cameron is coming under fire, notably from the Daily Mail, for his cautious response to President Obama’s attacks on BP, with some commentators describing his performance as a PR gaffe.
The problem is that, much as Cameron would love to be seen to be speaking up for British interests, he would be on a very sticky (no pun intended) wicket. Even before the Deepwater disaster, BP had a very ropey reputation in the US for safety and maintenance, and even worse, cavalier responses to previous problems, as Andrew Sullivan, no BP-basher, recently outlined in the Sunday Times.
Add to that the hapless performance of BP’s Tony Hayward, in which he has managed to get just about everything wrong, and Cameron can see how this would be the worst issue over which to take on Obama. In addition he realises how a fellow political leader has to play to his home audience, especially in an election year.
So it looks as if Cameron has played it right so far, looking like a responsible leader who can see the big picture rather than come up with a knee-jerk response. He needs to exert pressure behind the scenes to get BP to eventually do the right thing (after all the company can easily afford to drop the dividend and spend the money on clean-up and reparation) and then he may get some credit in the US and other countries for acting like a statesman rather than politician.
And if it all gets really nasty, he can always threaten to pull UK troops out of Afghanistan.