David Cameron wants to go to Washington for an audience with Barack Obama. He would like to bypass Brussels. If, as seems likely, the Conservatives win the coming general election, the Tory leader will discover that the facts of foreign policy are otherwise. Britain’s relationships with the US and Europe are inescapably interdependent.

Such is the national obsession with the so-called special relationship that a visit to the White House is a must-have for a British opposition leader hoping to make it to 10 Downing Street. US presidents usually oblige – though not always helpfully. The short shrift given by Ronald Reagan to Neil Kinnock when he was challenging Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s humiliated the then Labour leader.

Mr Obama is not that sort of president. Mr Cameron, though, cannot make the trip unless he is certain of more than a cursory handshake. Sensitive negotiations are underway to secure a substantive meeting within the next couple of months. All sorts of assurances – about the Conservative stance on Afghanistan, the nuclear deterrent and such like – are being proffered in the hope of smoothing the path.

I hope Mr Cameron succeeds. You do not have to regard Britain as America’s 51st state to think it important that a prospective prime minister establishes some sort of rapport with the US president. The two nations share important values, interests and endeavours. They are at war together in Afghanistan.

What many in Mr Cameron’s party refuse to accept (his own views remain obscure) is that bilateral ties with the US cannot be separated from the broader transatlantic relationship embracing the rest of Europe. As often as not the Tories will claim that favoured status in Washington assures Britain of clout in Paris, Berlin or Brussels. What the Eurosceptics – and these days that means most of the Conservative party – refuse to accept is that the obverse is also true. Britain’s status in the US depends on whether it can shape events elsewhere in Europe.

The Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan recognised the triangular nature of the relationship nearly half a century ago when he launched Britain’s first bid for membership of the then Common Market. To a greater or lesser degree, depending on the temperaments of successive prime ministers, Macmillan’s insight that Britain has to be close to Europe as well as to the US has remained the central pillar of Britain’s foreign policy.

I have always thought of Macmillan as Mr Cameron’s sort of Tory: pragmatic as well as patrician, more concerned to govern well than to embrace radicalism for the sake of it. Either way, Mr Cameron has precious little hope of rewriting the strategic rules by which Britain exercises influence in the world.

If anything, the tides are flowing in the other direction. Mr Obama is unsentimental about alliances. He has indicated that he wants and expects Europe to be a more cohesive partner in the transatlantic relationship. His administration has no time for British out-riding.

Louis Susman, Mr Obama’s ambassador in London, made the point in a recent interview with the FT. The US hoped, the ambassador said, that Britain would remain an important player in the European Union after the general election. It was in Britain’s interests for its two big parties to work well with their neighbours.

Strip away the diplomatic niceties and Mr Susman seemed to be issuing a gentle warning to Mr Cameron – do not expect open arms in Washington if Tory opposition to the Lisbon treaty leads to a serious rupture with the rest of Europe.

I am not sure that Mr Cameron has had that in mind at this week’s Conservative party conference in Manchester, but the small band of Tory pro-Europeans have drawn comfort from his response to Ireland’s Yes to the Lisbon treaty.

Mr Cameron has stuck to the formula that a pledge of a British referendum – with the aim of wrecking Lisbon– applies only if has not been ratified by the election. If the treaty is already in force, ie ratified in coming months by Poland and the Czech Republic, the Tory leader is committed to the much vaguer promise of “not letting the matter rest”.

If that points to a possible accommodation with Britain’s partners, the mood in his party is otherwise. Mr Cameron might like the issue to go away, but most in Manchester want to wreck the treaty come what may. Many would be happy for Britain to get out of Europe completely.

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, is among those who sound as if they relish the prospect of a bust-up with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Let us hope that Mr Hague is invited alongside Mr Cameron to the White House. Mr Obama could tell his guests face to face, albeit in the politest possible terms, that nothing resembling a special relationship would survive Britain’s detachment from Europe.

More columns at www.ft.com/stephens

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