When it comes to international diplomacy, there are few easier trips to make than that of an American politician to Britain. The script is essentially pre-written; the American is supposed to praise British history and culture, engage in relaxed and friendly chat with British political leaders, and claim that the ‘Special Relationship’ is as strong as ever. With the Olympics just starting, the American’s task is made even easier, as he could gain a bit of easy goodwill with some meaningless words of encouragement, speaking of how well the games are sure to go and working in a mention of the Jubilee for added points.
Mitt Romney, however, presented with this golden opportunity to appear presidential while distracting from persistent questions over his tax returns, managed somehow to come out of it looking, in the words of a Whitehall source, ‘Worse than Sarah Palin’.
Romney’s first gaffe came when an NBC reporter generously fed him a soft warm-up question on whether London will be ready for the Olympics. Instead of the expected enthusiastic response, Romney replied that it was ‘hard to know just how well it will turn out’, and that there were ‘a few things that were disconcerting’, while implying that he doubted the ability of the British people to ‘come together and celebrate’ the games. He then later seemingly forgot Ed Miliband’s name, referring to him as ‘Mr Leader’, broke protocol by mentioning that he had met with the head of MI6, and raised a few chuckles by referring to looking ‘out the backside of 10 Downing Street’ (in Britain the word ‘backside’ means ‘bottom’ and ’10 Downing Street’ is often used metonymically to mean the Prime Minister himself…).
On his visit to a nation stereotypically said to be obsessed with etiquette, Romney has behaved like the nightmare guest at a dinner party. He has criticised the host, forgotten somebody’s name and then raised an unmentionable subject (Great Britain did not even officially acknowledge the existence of MI6 until 1994). To top it off, he then inadvertently told the equivalent of a dirty joke. To keep with this dinner party analogy, Romney was then told off by the host, with David Cameron’s haughty riposte (referencing Romney’s organisation of the 2002 games in Salt Lake City) that it was easy to run an Olympics in ‘the middle of nowhere‘, and finally mocked by a drunken uncle in the shape of Boris Johnson, in front of 60,000 in Hyde Park.
Romney’s trip to Britain overall has been the most calamitous visit by an American politician since Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually, and it still isn’t over. Even if Romney manages to get through the rest of his trip avoiding any more gaffes, his attempt to appear statesmanlike and improve his poor image of foreign affairs competence has backfired spectacularly. When a Romney ‘adviser’ claimed earlier in the week that his candidate was better placed than Obama to deal with Britain because of a shared ‘Anglo-Saxon heritage’, it appeared to be just a nasty piece of dog-whistle politics. In the light of today’s performance however, it seems more like a scene scripted by Armando Iannucci, with the candidate set up for a humiliating fall. Back in the US, Obama can relax, watch the opening ceremony, and hope that this current ’Romneyshambles‘ continues until November.