Promotional campaigns are all about optics and symbolism, so it’s safe to assume that the organizers of the May 14 “Britain is Great” event in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District hadn’t noticed a large sign proclaiming “Prince Lumber” near the entrance to the venue. One of their two guests of honor, Prince Harry, had come away from his last trip to the US accused of lumbering his family with a fresh public relations challenge, after his hijinks in a Las Vegas hotel. By contrast, his current US tour, which started on May 9, has showcased him as an asset to the Windsors and the UK, a crowd-pleaser with a vocal female following.
Screams of delight greeted the royal as he arrived with British Prime Minister David Cameron aboard a spanking new red double-decker bus to attend a reception highlighting their nation’s strengths in technology, innovation and design. The latest iteration of London’s iconic mode of transport is the work of Thomas Heatherwick, who also designed the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 Games. Heatherwick’s bus looks stunning and when the doors had to be wrenched open to liberate the VIP passengers, that merely served to increase the excitement of Harry’s fans and to remind the wider audience that some of the Greatness of British culture surely resides in its celebration of imperfection.
Britons mistrust things, and people, that are slick. It’s a defect they detect in their smoothly eloquent Prime Minister, who like Prince Harry has been on a jaunt around the US. The British public aren’t sure he’s to be trusted, and a roiling battle with his own euroskeptic backbenchers has less to do with Cameron’s stated policy on Europe—he promises an in-out referendum giving Britons the option to leave the European Union—than whether his mutinous troops believe he will really deliver it. It’s not just that he proposes the referendum after the next election, and so would have to win the election to deliver on his promise. Many of his colleagues aren’t entirely sure he’s really a Conservative at heart.
A senior Tory and one-time member of the Conservative Shadow Cabinet reflects widespread disquiet in party ranks when he says that Cameron welcomed the 2010 election result that saw his Conservatives forced to share power with the Liberal Democrats. He cites Cameron’s support for gay marriage as evidence for the prosecution. “He’s the cleverest person in politics,” the veteran says. “But there’s something missing.”
Cameron is certainly no Margaret Thatcher; he’s more pragmatic, less ideological than the Iron Lady. Mark Wallace, executive editor of the website Conservative Home, says her recent death “reminded Conservatives that a central theme of her leadership was that any particular individual was either one of us [Conservatives] or not one of us. What a lot of the Conservative grassroots would like to get is a better feeling that he is one of them, understands their natural instincts and is ready to fight for them.”
Against this backdrop, Cameron’s US trip could look like Harry’s: an exercise in image burnishing. On a world stage, in Washington and Boston and New York, he appears as a statesman. He’s treated with respect. He’s even gained fans, though they’re less liable to scream than Harry’s.
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Audience members at the Britain Is Great reception may have pushed to get their photos taken with the Prince, but it’s the Prime Minister who really impressed. “He seems much more casual, much more human, than US politicians,” says Jake Schwartz, founder of General Assembly, a school for technology and design, after Cameron delivered a short, notes-free speech that ranged from the importance of UK-US trade through fracking to his favorite film (Lawrence of Arabia). “I like that he’ll just get up and riff,” Schwartz adds. David Eisenberg, the co-founder of Floored, a company specializing in 3D scanning & modelling for commercial real estate, agrees. “If you were to compare [Cameron] to a typical US congressman, he doesn’t seem as sales-y.”
Yet Cameron’s entire US tour has been a sales trip: promoting Britain, selling a strategy for achieving peace in Syria, pushing his vision of what should come after the Millennium Development Goals, reinforcing a notion of the Special Relationship with Washington that relies on the UK as a bridgehead to the EU.
He heads home to a tougher challenge: convincing his party to hang together; convincing them he is the man to lead them. It promises to be a hard sell.