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Cameron Fails Eccentric British Citizenship Test on Letterman Show

Posted on the 27 September 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

Just don't ask him what 'Magna Carta' means. Photo Credit: Flickr. Just don’t ask him what ‘Magna Carta’ means. Photo Credit: Flickr.

 The background

Following his address to the UN assembly in New York City, during which he urged leaders to back the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring, Prime Minister David Cameron headed to the world famous Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway to a much tougher gig. The first sitting Prime Minister to appear on The Late Show with Letterman, Cameron was unable to translate the seminal foundation of British Democracy, the Magna Carta.

Hard Talk it wasn’t — but was Cameron’s interview even more difficult and damaging?

Cameron fails citizenship test

“Do you mind if I ask you a lot of dumb, American questions?” asked Letterman, before launching into a stream of questions that would have made the UK Citizenship Test proud. What was surprising, however, was that Cameron struggled with the questions. When asked what the Magna Carta meant, the Prime Minister could only muster up a shrug. (It means Great Charter, just so you know.) Cameron was in for a further grilling when, The Independent reported, “after a brief foray into the issues surrounding Syria and the Arab Spring… Letterman confronted him with a truly tough question – who composed Rule Britannia? A floundering Mr Cameron made a guess at Edward Elgar, only to learn from Letterman’s researchers that it was in fact the little-known Thomas Arne.”

“You have found me out. That is bad, I have ended my career on your show tonight,” the prime minister said.

Deputy Political Editor of BBC News, James Landale notes: “What the 3 million Americans watching made of it is not known. But when David Cameron returns home later this week, he will probably be hoping the border staff don’t ask him to complete a citizenship test.”

Shrewd PR

Downing Street pulled no punches when it declared that the venture on Letterman was purely business minded. The Financial Times observed:  “Downing Street had said before his appearance that Mr Cameron planned to ‘bang the drum’ for Britain, using the fresh memories of a successful Games to promote British business and encourage American tourists to visit the UK, and the prime minister managed to turn the conversation back to his prepared subjects.” Indeed Cameron told Letterman: “We’re using the Olympics shamelessly to say this is a great place to come and work, come and live, come and invest.” The Daily Mail was quick to point out that: “Yes, going on this show was probably a Cameron ego trip, but it was also excusable, trade-drumming business.”

Boris vs. Cameron

“Cameron’s university chum, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who has appeared on the show, will no doubt be chuckling,” chortled The Guardian, of Cameron’s Latin mishap and shameless lack of innate British knowledge. Boris did, of course, venture on to the Late Show earlier this year and produced his signature blend of gaffe-prone eloquence. It was largely viewed as a success and, no doubt, Cameron’s appearance on the show will be viewed as further proof of his competition with Johnson; perhaps his biggest rival.

Cam prepped for Letterman grilling

The Independent noted that Downing Street were aware “that they could be taking a risk in putting the Prime Minister up against the irreverent Letterman, who is known for off-the-wall questions – asking recent guest Boris Johnson if he cut his own hair.” The Guardian reported the preparations the PM undertook for the interview “the Cameron prep team, led by his communications director and former television news editor Craig Oliver, fired a series of questions at him. Top of the list were queries about the Queen after the Letterman team told No 10 they were fascinated by the British monarch after her walk-on part in the James Bond section of the Olympics opening ceremony.”

He survived

Yet Cameron appears, despite his Magna Carta slip, to have successfully survived Letterman. He was amicable and jovial in his treatment of trans-Atlantic relations: “There were some good bits and some less than good bits, and obviously we had a bit of a falling out” and even diplomatically side-stepped Letterman’s dig at Mitt Romney for his questioning of London’s ability to host the Olympics, The Guardian judged. He made up for the Magna Carta mishap by giving the US host a detailed potted history of the document and of the make-up of the United Kingdom and even managed an audience ‘aww’ for Larry, the Downing Street cat. However, some believe that the prime minister was given an easy ride. BBC News James Landale notes that “There were no questions about Andrew Mitchell, or Boris Johnson or the state of the coalition.” The Daily Mail concurs: “Letterman guests can expect to have their legs pulled, their giblets roasted. Mr Cameron’s went only mildly broiled.”

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