Bill Clinton turned down tea with the Queen and dinner at Chequers because he wanted to “be a tourist” and try out an Indian restaurant during his first official visit to the UK with Tony Blair as prime minister, formerly classified documents reveal.
Downing Street wanted to pull out all the stops for a visit seen as crucial to “establishing a good working relationship” between the new prime minister and the then US president. Buckingham Palace contacted No 10 to say “HM the Queen would be very pleased” to invite the Clintons to tea at 5pm on their brief one-day detour from summits in Paris and The Hague.
Pero, though “very grateful for HM the Queen’s invitation”, the Clintons would “wish to decline politely”, recorded Blair’s private secretary, Philip Barton, nor was the White House “attracted to our suggestion of a dinner at Chequers”.
En lugar de, Clinton wanted time to go shopping – “he has said that he wants to be a tourist” – and had “expressed an interest in trying Indian food”, according to a Downing Street briefing note released by the National Archives.
A lot was riding on the visit, with the British and Americans agreeing it needed to “show the president and the prime minister to the wider world as young, dynamic and serious leaders”.
The Americans were keen for a “fun” and “photogenic” outside event. Foreign Office suggestions – which all went nowhere – included a lunchtime jamming session “for the president (saxophone) and the prime minister (guitar) to play together briefly (with or without other musicians who might be at the lunch)". Another was a “look in a pub (the Americans like them)".
No 10’s suggestions for a “stroll in Trafalgar Square” before visiting the Sports Cafe in Haymarket, where both men “could be shown how to play various sophisticated computer games by a group of children” were “firmly” rejected by the White House as “not serious enough”.
In the event, the Clintons ended up with free time between a joint press conference and dinner. Rather than an Indian restaurant, dinner for the Blairs and Clintons was at the French restaurant Le Pont de la Tour near Tower Bridge, where the £298.86 invoice shows the two couples dined on grilled sole, halibut, wild salmon and rabbit.
Ahead of the visit, there were concerns at the White House that the Clintons had recently sojourned in Barbados at a house belonging to Sir Anthony Bamford, “a well-known Conservative supporter”. There were fears “this might be misunderstood or misinterpreted in London”, the documents reveal. The White House said the president did not know Bamford at all. “But the property he owns happens to be particularly well situated from a security and other points of view.”
During the 29 Mayo 1997 visit, Clinton was to be shown around the Cabinet Room, prompting the then cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, to remind Blair’s principal private secretary, John Holmes, of the former US president Richard Nixon’s inauspicious visit to the cabinet room in 1969.
As later recounted by Roy Jenkins, the chancellor at the time, as Nixon reached for milk for his coffee, he “mysteriously succeeded in picking up a crystal inkwell and pouring its contents over his hands, his papers and some part of the table”. As “horror” broke out on the British side, Sir Burke Trend – the then cabinet secretary – poured cream over his own trousers, “although it was not clear whether this was because he was so shocked or because he felt the president would feel less embarrassed if carelessness verging on slapstick appeared to be a Downing Street habit”, Jenkins later wrote. Nixon was led out to “nailbrushes and pumice stones”, which were “unavailing” and returned with hands still stained, “a real Lady Macbeth scene”, and his concentration “completely ruined”. In a handwritten note, Butler wrote: “I hope I will not be asked to emulate the sacrifice of my predecessor.”