| 10.4°C Belfast

Hague flies in to Washington

The new Foreign Secretary, William Hague met Hillary Clinton in Washington yesterday and delivered a convincing message of reassurance: Anglo-American ties will continue to be Britain's foreign policy priority under a Tory-led coalition.

"I am not looking for differences with the previous British administration", Mr Hague said after an hour of talks dominated by the twin issues of the war in Afghanistan and the international standoff with Iran over it's nuclear programme. "There will be a strong continuity of British policy on these matters".

In the Treaty Room of the State Department, beneath the gaze of Thomas Jefferson and James Baker, among several of Mrs Clinton's predecessors, rendered immortal in portraits, the pair took questions from the media. Their meeting was partly to lay the ground for the first visit to Washington by David Cameron, which British officials now expect to take place in July. Mr Obama and Mr Cameron will however meet before that at a G20 summit in Toronto in June.

In a vivid pink pantsuit Hillary Clinton paid tribute to the creation of the new coalition government in Britain and the smooth transition of power this week. She said they were "two powerful symbols of the democratic traditions that our two countries share". She had "no concern whatsoever", she said, that the coalition would lead to problems in the transatlantic relationship.

Earlier, as the two settled in a small sitting room for their talks, Mrs Clinton was overheard by a reporter apparently commenting on the closeness of Mr Cameron and the deputy prime minster, Nick Clegg. "They seem to have good chemistry, they almost finish each other's sentence'," she said to her guest, who swiftly replied of the coalition: "It will work very well." Explaining the agreement struck for a new five-year term for the new government, he boldly surmised to her it was "American democracy coming to Britain –a fixed term parliament".

At the news conference, Mr Hague said that the new government intended to be "really ambitious, energetic and determined" on the world stage. With British reporters later he was asked whether the demonstration of solidarity between him and the Secretary of State undermined his promise to avoid a "slavish" relationship with the US. "It is important that we feel free to say so when we differ," he replied, but adding without pause: "It is good for our relationship and good for world affairs when the UK is in support of the foreign policies of the Obama administration".

Yet, Mr Hague's first telephone call upon the government's formation earlier this week was not to any of his counterparts in Europe, but to Mrs Clinton, just as President Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to offer congratulations to David Cameron. And it was Mr Hague who suggested he pay her a visit, not soon but almost immediately.

If the haste to run to Washington signalled that America comes before Europe in the new foreign secretary's priorities, then the eurosceptic Mr Hague probably doesn't mind.

It was well known that the chemistry between Mrs Clinton and the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was extremely smooth. Mrs Clinton told Vogue magazine that she found Mr Milliband "vibrant, vital, attractive, smart" and that she liked his accent.

Mrs Clinton of course made no public observations last night about his successor's attributes but there are areas on which the US has grounds for trepidation about Britain under its new leaders. On Iran, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has voiced strong opposition to any military option to end the stand-off over nuclear weapons. Washington, by contrast, has refused to take possible military action of the table.

Mrs Clinton said she did not expect any sign that Iran would yield any ground on its nuclear programme until the UN imposes the new sanctions. "I believe that we will not get any serious response out of the Iranians until after the Security Council acts" she said.

Voicing support for the sanctions Mr Hague also emphasised the need for European nations fully to enforce them. "It is important that the European Union follow them up in a very concerted way", he said. Both governments meanwhile face an increasingly difficult domestic atmosphere over Afghanistan. In the US there is a growing concern that the greater problem may reside in Pakistan, an impression that has only been reinforced by the failed car bombing in Times Square.


Belfast Telegraph