David Cameron cares as deeply about college hoops as Barack Obama takes an interest in English county cricket. Yet it’s a safe bet that the briefing documents Britain’s Prime Minister studied on his March 13 charter flight to Washington included not only the key points he hopes to convey in bilateral discussions with the President, but a crib sheet devised to give him instant expertise on the national collegiate basketball championship known as March Madness. Cameron was delighted to receive an invitation from Obama to watch the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers square off against the Mississippi Valley State’s Delta Devils in Dayton, Ohio, on the evening of his arrival. Whoever wins the game (starting at 6.30pm ET), it’s a slam dunk for Cameron, an unrivalled opportunity to show off how very special his special relationship™ with Obama has become.
The men are flying to Dayton on Air Force One; Cameron will be the first foreign leader to travel as Obama’s guest on the world’s most exclusive airline. The president laid on a big reception for the Camerons’ arrival and, on March 14, a state dinner. Samantha Cameron—or “Sam Cam,” as the British press dub the elegant Prime Ministerial spouse, accompanying her husband for the first time on official business to Washington—gets to hang out with FLOTUS. All this red-carpet treatment could not be more gratifying from Downing Street’s perspective. Cameron famously told TIME ahead of his first foray to Washington as Prime Minister, in July 2010, that Britain “should always be conscious of the fact that we’re the junior partner in this relationship and America is a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic power.” He warned against appearing “too needy.” The evidence of this trip is that his strategy—psychologists might recognize a version of the play-it-cool school of seduction—is paying off.
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It’s true that if Cameron’s relationship with POTUS really does appear quite special, at least by comparison to other European leaders’, that’s partly a function of longevity. The euro zone crisis has thinned the ranks of European leaders with any profile in Washington and threatens the tenure of several others. Cameron, in office since May 2010, isn’t up for re-election until 2015, provided he can hold his increasingly fractious coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats together for a full term.
But the Junior Partner™ is more than just a familiar face stateside. Obama is facing his own battle for re-election this fall and will not have overlooked the public relations bonus of hosting Cameron at a crowd-pleasing event in the key swing state of Ohio; Cameron’s U.S. diary was apparently too full to squeeze in a quick hello to Mitt Romney or any of the other GOP hopefuls. And if Obama succeeds in securing a second term, he’s likely to find himself working closely with his British ally across a range of difficult issues.
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The night before Cameron embarked for the U.S., he hosted a small group of London-based U.S. correspondents for drinks and chips beneath the watchful gaze of the Iron Lady in Downing Street’s Margaret Thatcher room. Most of the conversation was off the record; none of it needed to be. There were no hints of hidden schisms that might open between POTUS and the PM. They may not agree on how to fix their economies—through stimulus or severity—and there’s more than a suspicion in Westminster that Washington would not ride to Britain’s aid if the Falkland Islands came under attack again, as tensions ratchet up just ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. But there’s broad agreement on other issues such as the timing of both countries’ exit from Afghanistan; the need to give Iranian sanctions time to bite; the fraught search for a solution in Syria; intelligence sharing. “We count on each other and the world counts on our alliance,” the leaders declared in a joint article published by the Washington Post as Cameron headed west. As long as Cameron and Obama remain in office, the special relationship is unlikely to head the same way.
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Catherine Mayer is TIME Europe Editor. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.