Grinning under the glare of the world’s cameras, Tony Blair laughed nervously and looked to his left. A mischievous newspaper reporter had asked the president of the United States whether he thought he was sitting with the next British prime minister.
“It’s all I can do to keep up with American politics,” Bill Clinton replied, with a smile. “I just hope he’s talking to the next American president.”
Blair, now Sir Tony, would later recall his April 1996 trip to the White House as a “relief”, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that continued after Labour’s landslide election victory the following year.
The trick has since been repeated, without much success, by various opposition leaders looking to project themselves as statesmen worthy of Britain’s highest political office.
Less than 18 months before the next election, Sir Keir Starmer has yet to make his own pilgrimage, but his shadow cabinet has racked up tens of thousands of air miles crossing the Atlantic – and connections with the Biden White House are growing.
This week it is David Lammy and John Healey who are in Washington, to promote a new, robust Labour foreign and defence policy.
The duo, who are keen to stress their personal friendship, have spent the week gladhanding congressmen and giving speeches at Washington think tanks.
The present danger to the West could not be more apparent. On Thursday, just a mile from where I meet Lammy and Healey at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial, the White House is hosting Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss an impasse in Congress over US military support for Ukraine.
“We’re very conscious that we arrived in Washington at a time where there’s heated political debate,” Lammy says. “That debate is different, I think, to what we experience in the UK.”
The Tottenham MP is no stranger to America. He says he has visited the country almost every year since he was 18, when he was inspired to study law at Harvard University by the NBC drama LA Law.
His connections here are impressive. At an event for black Harvard alumni some years later, he struck up a close friendship with Barack Obama. The pair keep in touch.
This week’s trip is his fourth to Washington since becoming Sir Keir’s shadow foreign secretary in November 2021, and he talks of Labour as an “Atlanticist” party that looks to the United States for leadership in times of global difficulty.
Since the latest crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Labour has supported the US and UK’s supply of arms, aid and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine unconditionally.
The conflict has provided the party with an opportunity to chip off the veneer of distrust on defence issues it acquired among British voters after the Iraq War and the beleaguered leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
A poll by Ipsos Mori in June found that of 14 key policy areas, defence was the only issue where Labour performed worse than the Conservatives.
Healey, a Labour MP since 1997, is now the shadow defence secretary and has been charged with reversing the damage of the Corbyn years to convince voters – and the Americans – that his party can be trusted.
This week he was careful to avoid the mistakes of Neil Kinnock, who visited Washington in 1987 and, during a “polite and businesslike” meeting with Ronald Reagan, told the president he supported nuclear disarmament. Reagan replied that he was “crazy”.
Admitting that there “have been doubts about Labour in the past few years”, Healey praises his party’s “unshakeable Labour commitment to Nato” – a statement that would have provoked disbelief just two years ago.
Now, he argues for Britain to take on a “lead European nation” role in the organisation, backed by a “Nato test” of the armed forces in the first 100 days of Sir Keir’s administration.
“If there is a change to Labour next year, there’ll be no change to Britain’s resolve to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Healey says.
Lammy adds: “We want to ensure that we’re reconnecting the United Kingdom across the globe.
“Actually, the Americans see that as hugely important. And, of course, we underline the importance of the special relationship and the transatlantic relationship at a time of big geopolitical challenge and change.”
Their trip comes after a series of announcements designed to align Labour more closely with the Biden administration.
Like Blair and Clinton, who developed a transatlantic “Third Way”, Sir Keir and his team are hoping to emulate “Bidenomics”, and have pledged to launch a gargantuan new funding programme for decarbonisation technology, adapted from Biden’s £350 billion Inflation Reduction Act.
Speaking the language of the White House’s current crop of economic advisers, Rachel Reeves told an audience in Washington in May: “We must foster new partnerships between the free market and an active state and between countries across the world who share values and interests.”
The party’s aides have also been dispatched to learn from the Democrats’ campaigning strategies and use of election data in the Rust Belt – thought to be similar to Britain’s “Red Wall”.
It seems the charm offensive is working. This week’s trip has seen Lammy and Healey invited into the Pentagon for meetings with top officials including Michael Chase, the deputy assistant Secretary of Defence for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, and among policy anoraks in the Washington defence establishment there no longer seems to be concern about Labour’s commitment to Nato.
In fact, Healey argues it is the Conservatives that have damaged American trust by cutting troop numbers, which have fallen by 20,000 in the past 15 years and are set to decline to their lowest level in 200 years by 2025.
“It has led to questions, including from US allies, about whether Britain can fulfil its obligations to Nato in full,” he says.
Labour has pledged to run a full military review in the first year of a new government, hinting at a reversal of the cuts, but refuses to commit to the policy until it has “classified information about capabilities” it says are held by the Ministry of Defence.
Although the party’s message on defence is one of reassurance, it does have grand plans for a shakeup of the Foreign Office, which is to be partly repurposed as a billboard to advertise overseas investment.
Lammy is drawing up a “strategic assessment” of Britain’s diplomats who will move officials out of well-staffed embassies to bolster the ranks in countries where the UK can drum up more foreign trade and investment.
The current destinations for more diplomats include Brazil, India, Japan and Germany, while the number of existing “economic attachés” will be increased by diverting resources from elsewhere in the department.
An earlier policy pledge, to bring back the Department for International Development, is now thought to have been dropped amid concerns it would cost too much money.Instead, the Foreign Office will be more heavily integrated into the Ministry of Defence, with Labour strategists drawing on the words of Lord Robertson, the last British Nato secretary general, who once declared: “Strong defence is sound foreign policy.”
Healey says that plan has already been conveyed to senior officials in the Pentagon during this week’s visit. “They like the fact that David and I are here together, the shadow foreign secretary and shadow defence secretary,” he says.
“They’ve not been used to seeing that from the UK government, where they’ve seen the foreign secretary fighting with the defence secretary in public over Afghanistan [and] Liz Truss when she was foreign secretary urging British veterans to go and fight in Ukraine. We put that behind us.”
While Labour’s efforts to woo the US follow the playbook of many parties preparing for government, another area of its foreign policy is far more controversial. Among the plans to “make Britain influential in the world” is another ambition, says Healey: “We need to make a success of Brexit.”
Labour’s attempts to align itself more closely with the EU has repeatedly drawn it into rows with Brexiteers, who fear Sir Keir is planning to reverse the Brexit process.
At a conference in Montreal last week, he unveiled plans to hold regular meetings with Brussels to discuss a new “security pact” and other joint projects.
Speaking on a panel at the event, he told an audience of like-minded centre-Leftists that “most of the conflict with the UK being outside [of the EU] arises insofar as the UK wants to diverge and do different things to the rest of our EU partners”.
To the horror of Brexiteers back home, he added: “Actually we don’t want to diverge, we don’t want to lower standards, we don’t want to rip up environmental standards, working standards for people that work, food standards and all the rest of it.”
Asked whether he is concerned Labour’s plans for the EU could deter Brexit voters – many of whom voted for Boris Johnson for the first time in 2019 – Lammy scowls and shakes his head.
“Brexit has happened, the decision has been made, the red lines we’ve been clear on,” he says. “We will not be going back into the single market, we will not be going back into a customs union.”
Pointing to examples of EU laws that would be retained under Labour, he adds: “I don’t think your readers are surprised that the Labour Party is committed to high standards – the British people are committed to high standards.
“We want high standards on environmental protection. We want high standards on workers’ rights. That is not new, we’re not tearing up arrangements for the sake of it.” Back in Washington, the EU is less of a concern for policymakers, but the bloc has been applauded for its contributions to Ukrainian forces fighting Vladimir Putin.
But there is concern among Democrats about what might happen to the war effort after next year’s presidential election if Donald Trump returns to the White House.
The former president has pledged to bring a speedy end to the conflict by rapidly cutting military support from the US and brokering a peace treaty. His “America First” strategy, trialled during his first term in office, is a form of isolationism and views the Ukraine war as a problem for European states to deal with.
Unsurprisingly, it is unpopular in Europe, where Ukraine’s allies believe a deal would involve it giving up territory in exchange for flimsy ceasefire guarantees from the Kremlin.
A collapse in American support would make Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south east of the country futile – even if pleasing some US voters who would prefer to see the money spent on domestic priorities.
As Zelensky told congressmen on Thursday: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.” Both Lammy and Healey are clear they would use Nato to pressurise a Trump administration to continue funding for Kyiv, although are cautious to say so outright.
Gone are the days when Lammy would describe the former president as a “dangerous clown” and an “enemy of democracy”. Now, he talks the language of a diplomat.
“If I have the privilege of being foreign secretary [and] if John has the privilege of being defence secretary, our job in the end is to pursue British interests,” he says.
“Coming to the United States, the truth is that most often our interests align. And so, of course, we would seek to influence whoever becomes president of the United States, and I’m very confident that we would not just be doing that as the United Kingdom.
“We will be doing that alongside our allies of Canada, France and Germany, and across the North Atlantic Alliance.”
Healey adds that he is optimistic about Right-wing threats to deny Ukraine a $24 billion (£20 billion) aid package, and says he will leave the US “much more reassured” that the “central determination that spans the political blend of most of the Republican Party is very strongly for Ukraine”.
While there is some debate about the importance of funding a war in Europe, US lawmakers are united in their concern about another threat – China.
Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has said the US’s relationship with the Communist state must be “competitive, collaborative and adversarial when it must be”, while Lammy says his own approach is modelled on the “three Cs” of competition, challenge and co-operation.
Describing the Government’s strategy as “like a drunken naval soldier”, he pledges to conduct an “audit” of Britain’s relationship and describes “threats” from China including “the potential for espionage”, a crackdown on protesters outside the Chinese embassy last October and a network of “secret police stations” in the West.
Lammy adds that while conflict between China and Taiwan is “neither necessary nor inevitable”, he is concerned about the “high state of alert” in the country after Xi Jinping restated his opposition to the country’s independence at the Communist Party Congress in October.
“In Washington, because it’s a Pacific nation, they’re alive to the instruction from President Xi that his military should be ready by 2025,” he says.
By that point, Labour may find itself in government. Although Sir Keir drills his team regularly with a mantra to “not get complacent”, the party has stepped up its preparations for the election and what may lie beyond.
Since Rishi Sunak took office, Labour has held a polling lead of around 20 points that many think will last until the next election.
Sue Gray, once the Cabinet Office’s top enforcer and partygate inquisitor, has been brought into the party’s Southwark headquarters as Sir Keir’s chief of staff, while Peter Mandelson, the Blair-era adviser, has been tasked with teaching Labour aides how to “spin” journalists.
The party’s polling lead has not gone unnoticed in Washington, either.
“We are probably a year or so out from a general election in the UK [and] your readers will no doubt be watching the polls, and have come to their own conclusion as to who might win the election,” said Lammy at a think tank event this week in Washington.
“I’ll spell it out,” replied Max Bergmann, the event’s host. “Labour looks far ahead in the polls … I think many in Washington are very interested in the direction of the Labour Party when it comes to the special relationship.”
For Sir Keir, it will soon be time to make his own trip to Washington to answer that question himself.
Unlike his shadow foreign secretary, the Labour leader is relatively unknown in the United States, save for the impression he left as head of the Crown Prosecution Service on visits over a decade ago.
“My impression was that he was somewhat by the book,” says one US official who knew him at the time. “The meetings were always very congenial and he was very good to work with. He didn’t strike me as super political.”
With an election approaching, that perception may be about to change.