In just a few days, new Prime Minister David Cameron has openly declared Britain is no more than the “junior partner” of the US, irritated Israelis by calling Gaza a prison camp and enraged Pakistanis by suggesting their country exports terrorism.
So what is the game plan of Britain’s youngest prime minister in nearly 200 years?
Is it youthful inexperience, or is the 43-year-old calculating a new chapter in British diplomacy – casting himself as a truth-teller distinct from his Labour predecessors, whom he has accused of relying on spin?
“It’s an immature reaction from an immature politician,” Pakistan’s High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan told The Associated Press on Thursday after Cameron criticised the country’s counterterrorism efforts during a visit to India, Pakistan’s nuclear rival.
“He should choose his words more carefully.”
Cameron says he will continue the plain diplomatic talk – a contrast to the political waffling of former prime minister Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’s accused sycophancy with his US counterparts.
But Cameron’s attitude also bears a striking similarity to Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, who made a virtue of upsetting her European counterparts and once famously told one of her lawmakers “your spine does not reach your brain” after a dispute over a key parliamentary vote.
“I believe in speaking clearly and plainly about these matters,” Cameron said Thursday, wrapping up his trip to India.
Countered ex-Foreign Secretary David Miliband: “There’s a difference between being a straight talker and a loudmouth.”
Cameron, who became a lawmaker just nine years ago, has been trying to shore up support at home since his Conservative Party failed to win enough parliamentary seats to lead a majority government. In the end, the party entered a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, a partnership some predict may not last.
If the coalition breaks up and forces another general election, Cameron will need to win over voters he failed to convince in April – many of them traditional Labour supporters.
“It is a long-term strategy,” said Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. “He spent the election trying to convince people he was a different kind of Conservative, a liberal Conservative. And he didn’t quite seal the deal.”
Despite a high approval rating in the latest opinion polls, Cameron faces a tough sell at home.
His government recently unveiled one of the most dramatic austerity packages in decades, meant to tackle Britain’s gargantuan deficit – measures that feature extreme cuts to public spending that will take a bite out of services from buses to health care, as well as tax hikes that will hit rich and poor alike. Few are likely to be happy with the cuts ahead.
Comments in the foreign policy arena may also backfire on the British leader – both at home and abroad.
During his first official visit to the United States this month – at a time when Americans were seething over the BP oil spill – Cameron tried to dilute the political impact of the disaster, but also spoke of the company’s importance and refused to authorise an inquiry into its links with Libya, enraging US senators.
On a trip to Turkey this week, he sharply criticised Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish activists, adding that the Palestinian territory “cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp”. Unlike his Labour predecessors, Cameron made no mention of Israel’s security concerns or the Islamic militant Hamas, which has fired rockets into southern Israel from Gaza.
At home, Cameron angered some voters by asserting that Britain was the junior partner in the World War 2 fight against Germany in 1940 – a point when the US had not even entered the war. The gaffe angered British veterans, but also harkened back to Blair, who was caricatured as George W. Bush’s poodle for agreeing to join the US-led war in Iraq.
The most politically divisive comments, however, were aimed at Pakistan during Cameron’s visit to rival India – just a week before Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari comes to Britain.
“We should be very, very clear with Pakistan that we want to see a strong, stable and democratic Pakistan,” Cameron said. “But we cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India, whether to Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the world.”
Pakistan has faced US pressure to take tougher action against the Haqqani network, the al Qaeda linked group that directs operations against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.
While Hasan, the Pakistani high commissioner, conceded more could be done to battle terrorism, he said Cameron risked undermining the vital partnership between Pakistani and British intelligence.
“Cameron’s comments – essentially blaming Pakistan – are a kick,” he said, noting that Pakistani intelligence worked closely with British counterparts to investigate the 2005 London suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters in London and to thwart several planned attacks, including the 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot.
He said Pakistan also helped identify terrorism targets to US and British forces within its own borders, often resulting in the deaths of Pakistani civilians.
“To fight terrorism, Cameron should have encouraged India and Pakistan to come together rather than using a divisive statement like this to ingratiate himself with India,” Hasan said.
Still, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the country’s coalition government was behind Cameron’s remarks. “The prime minister speaks the truth and we are all united and clear about what he said,” Hague said.
In the end, perhaps Cameron’s outspokenness will help raise his profile.
In New York’s Times Square during this month’s visit, Britain’s Daily Mirror found few people could even identify the prime minister. One woman confused him with America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan – and another with BP’s disgraced chief executive Tony Hayward.