Kevin McCarthy tells journalists he wants to talk to Sunak about trade
There was a telling moment yesterday when Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House and currently most senior member of the Republican Party, was stopped by journalists in Congress shortly before he was due to meet the British Prime Minister.
As can be seen in the video attached to this story, journalist Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer asked him: “What are your expectations with your meeting with Rishi Sunak today?”
McCarthy’s face went blank: “I’m sorry.”
She repeated her question.
“Are you talking about the Prime Minister?” he responded.
It may have been the surrounding noise but the impression given was that the name “Rishi Sunak” was not one which McCarthy immediately recognised – even though he said in his reply they had met years ago.
Had McCarthy been asked about Boris Johnson or even Liz Truss ahead of a meeting then one suspects there would not have been the same confusion.
It was not as bad as the occasions when Joe Biden could not properly pronounce his name soon after he became Prime Minister.
But what is obvious is that Mr Sunak is struggling to make an impression across the Atlantic even though he studied at Stamford University and held on tightly to his green card to live and work in the USA for years.
It was noticeable that there was no invitation from America’s biggest and most influential conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation to come and speak.
Just recently Ms Truss was given a platform there to talk about China and her high growth, tax-cutting economic vision – Heritage has been very critical of Sunak’s high tax and spend approach.
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If you think that does not matter, it is Heritage that is recruiting the staff and creating the policy portfolio for whoever the Republicans select as their next Presidential candidate.
To not have an open door there is not like putting the noses out of the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK, it is to be potentially shut out of the routes to influence in the White House for the next four years.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is still being paid millions of dollars as he does his speaking tour around the US.
And it was telling that the Democracy Institute poll for the Daily Express US showed that Mr Johnson was the top choice as foreign leaders to be an alternative President – ahead of Mr Sunak.
Of course, Mr Sunak was welcomed and embraced as an ally – he is after all the British Prime Minister and a very likeable man.
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But to a certain degree, the failure to make a big impression is one that is reflected back at home in Britain but for different reasons.
Back at home very little is happening.
The tumbleweed is blowing through Parliament as subject debates clog up Commons time with nothing substantive coming out.
The five pledges made by Sunak lacked ambition and may still not be met, but most people struggle to remember what they are just as US politicians struggle to remember his name.
The Tories are stuck in the polls and seem to be making very little headway on Labour’s 15-point lead and a number of Tory backbenchers are daily questioning what a Sunak government actually believes in.
To a certain extent, Mr Sunak is using these foreign excursions to bolster his case to be re-elected but it seems doubtful this strategy is really working.
However, there are clearly some very bright points from this first trip to Washington as Prime Minister.
One thing is that both McCarthy and Democrat Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer seemed to suggest that a UK/ US trade deal is something both parties in the US are now keen on.
Previously it was just the Republicans with the Democrats in a pro-EU huff using Northern Ireland as an excuse to slow things down.
So things are now turning Britain’s way again post Brexit and even Biden, who barely conceals his dislike for Britain, was happy to talk about Artificial Intelligence and trade around that.
For all his lower profile it may be that Sunak is making more headway in some respects.
But to capitalise on that he will need to persuade not just his American allies in the next year but more importantly voters at home that he has the personality and drive to win.
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