Bernard Ingham: A pointless journey by a Prime Minister who has lost his way

IN her early days, Margaret Thatcher used to ask all and sundry in No 10 Downing Street before trips abroad: "Is my journey really necessary?" She considered gallivanting overseas a waste of good reforming time.

These are very early days for Gordon Brown and, after nearly 11 Labour years in office, more and more needs reforming. So I do hope that before he started his visit to the US today he asked himself the same question.

Frankly, I am at a loss as to why he is going.

Is it, as has been suggested, to avoid campaigning for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections? If so, it seems unduly extravagant, both financially and in terms of carbon emissions. Is it to get away from the endless fratching and backbiting in his office caused by importing expensive new spin doctors? Hardly, since he is taking a big team with him.

Is it to have some respite from the incipient revolt by his MPs over his abject performance in the public opinion polls? He was behind by 16 points in the latest YouGov survey. If so, it is extraordinarily ill-judged since the weaker you are politically at home, the less seriously you are taken abroad – and Americans, in my experience, tend to be very sensitive to power, or lack of it.

What is more, when the cat's away the mice do play, as Thatcher discovered, though in her case it was usually in later years to return to find that another Minister had resigned to spend more time with his family, no doubt without having taken the precaution of inquiring whether his family would welcome it.

I am sure Brown will feel at home on Wall Street. He seems only to be happy, dour chap that he is, when spouting financial gobbledegook about such things as endogenous growth theory. This explains the problem diagnosed by his party: his inability to get his message across and his Government's consequent lack of direction.

But if he thinks he is going to be thought a hero at the heart of capitalism for sending mosquito nets and billions of dollars to Africa, especially in view of what Africa is not doing about Robert Mugabe, he has another thing coming. And hasn't Mugabe just rained on his American parade by dismissing him as "a tiny dot on this planet". Oh dear.

Even if they shared his finer ideals, they are feeling a bit short on Wall Street these days in view of the sub-prime crisis – serve them right – though not, it seems, proportionately as short as our improvident bankers.

Sometimes Prime Ministers find it necessary to rush across the Atlantic to "wash the president's head" about some issue – as Thatcher did when Ronald Reagan dangerously offered to get rid of his nuclear weapons at his Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. Otherwise, visits take a lot of planning. This allows time for serious consideration of opportunities, risks and competing events since the purpose is not usually to hide the Prime Minister from public view.

It has not been put to good use. Brown is not so well known across the Atlantic that America's four breakfast TV programmes will be desperate for an interview, unless it is, unhelpfully, to pursue his value as an ally in view of our current uselessness in Basra.

No doubt they will oblige him since he is to meet would-be presidential candidates, but just how much notice will be taken of him when the Pope, with open air masses planned in Washington and New York, is also in town?

Could it be that Brown wants his visit to be overshadowed because, while he has a duty to try to get on with the American president, President Bush is not much use to a Labour Prime Minister desperately in need of domestic friends? Brown is, above all, a party politician, not a statesman.

He must know that he stands about as high in American regard as that curmudgeonly Europhile, Edward Heath. Indeed, the British Embassy in Washington no longer uses the term "special relationship" for very good reason. The White House doubts Brown's commitment to the war on terror in Iraq and even in Afghanistan and has noted his propensity to work through such ineffectual international bodies as the UN and EU that absolve him of leadership.

Under Brown, we are drifting apart. So why is he in America

if not spectacularly to reverse the drift? Your guess is as good

as mine.