LONDON // The US presidential contender Barack Obama is meeting the British prime minister Gordon Brown on the last leg of his European and Middle Eastern tour. The Democratic hopeful seemed relaxed as he strolled down to the prime minister's office at 10 Downing St. this morning, pausing briefly to shake the hand of a somewhat startled police officer standing near the door. He turned to television cameras, smiled, waved and said "Hello" before walking into Number 10. Mr Brown greeted him just inside the door. Pooled television images showed Mr Brown offering Mr Obama a chair on the Downing Street terrace before the pair settled down for two hours of talks. Mr Obama is expected to speak with Mr Brown about the war in Iraq and about strengthening ties between the United States and the United Kingdom. Earlier, he met with former prime minister Tony Blair, who is now serving as a Middle East envoy.
He was also due to meet the leader of Britain's main opposition Conservatives, David Cameron, whose centre-right party is riding high in the opinion polls and on course to win the next general election. According to media reports today, Mr Brown is facing mounting calls from his Labour Party colleagues to quit, after a third crushing by-election defeat in as many months on Thursday and polling plunged to new lows.
The Independent newspaper said today that it was a bad time for him to meet "arguably the world's most popular politician". Mr Obama's national security adviser, Wendy Morigi, said late yesterday that the Illinois senator had enjoyed his previous discussions with Mr Brown, whom he met in Washington in May with his Republican Party rival, John McCain. He "looks forward to meeting with him again to discuss shared security challenges in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He also expects to exchange views on climate change and non-proliferation," she added.
Talks with Mr Blair and Mr Cameron whom Mr Obama may have to deal with if Brown goes and he becomes the first African-American US president will be on "shared challenges" in energy, climate change and the global economy, she said. Compared to his visit to Berlin, where he addressed an estimated 200,000-strong crowd to rapturous cheers and applause on Thursday, the London leg of Mr Obama's world tour is expected to be more low-key.
Protocol dictates that Mr Brown will not appear with Mr Obama on the steps of 10 Downing Street, as he did not do the same for Mr McCain when he visited London in March. Photographs will be taken inside before Mr Obama addresses the media outside, then heads to parliament to see Mr Cameron and returns to the United States. Mr Obama's popularity is high here, as in the rest of Europe. A recent newspaper poll suggested Britons favour him to Mr McCain for the presidency by five to one.
Mr Brown has also recently visited Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories and will doubtless be encouraged by his call for a more multilateral approach to US foreign policy, as he has pushed a similar line. He also wants troop reductions in Iraq and reinforcements from Nato countries involved in anti-insurgency and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan. Before flying to Britain on Friday, Mr Obama met the French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, signalling his appreciation for a warming of French-US relations that were hit by former president Jacques Chirac's opposition to the 2003 Iraq war.
Mr Obama also said he was grateful for French military reinforcements for Afghanistan. France recently committed 700 extra troops to the coalition. Britain the United States' closest ally in its "war on terror" has also called for its Nato allies to shoulder more of the burden, amid rising numbers of fatalities against the extremist Taliban in Afghanistan. Mr Obama's Berlin speech called for the rift in US-European relations to be repaired. That will chime well with Brown, who has stuck to Mr Blair's position of Britain being a "bridge" between Europe and the United States.
Mr Obama, 46, is still favourite to beat the 71-year-old Mr McCain in the election. According to pollsters, he is between one and six points ahead, but there are indications his edge is beginning to recede in key states, despite what the McCain camp has called the media's "love affair" with Mr Obama. * AFP with AP