The clap trap is a theatrical device designed to win applause. And Congress is guaranteed to deliver an ovation or two if British Prime Ministers observe the rules.
You see, you may not have noticed, but our current one, Gordon Brown, has just been to Washington. Say something really nice, as he did, about the tenacity and courage of the American people and Congress will clap you to the rafters. Say that the special relationship between your country and ours has never been stronger and they'll do it over again. And if you fancy announcing an honorary knighthood for a senior American statesman -- in this case, Senator Edward Kennedy -- they'll be on their feet once more.
On balance Gordon Brown had a good trip to your capital city. Most people in America can be forgiven for not having the foggiest idea who he is. Now a few more of them do - he's the first European leader to meet your new President and only the fifth Prime Minister ever to speak to its legislative members. A little British coup.
But Mr. Brown had a much more serious mission. He wanted to urge the White House away from protectionist policies in the fight against recession. He wanted to inspire Congress with his ambition to control the excesses of banks by international agreement.
Of course he didn't come armed with any significant detail. Perhaps that is being saved for the big meeting, here in London, of twenty world leaders just a few weeks from now? But he did want to be seen as a credible player in the struggle to save jobs and rescue economies.
Here in Britain, he remains woefully unpopular and displays an unfortunate tendency to look ill at ease. More important though, he has refused to accept any blame in public for his government's part in failing to see the recession coming, and then failing to dealing with it decisively.
In truth, Mr. Brown still believes it is all America's fault. Except you can't say that on Capitol Hill and get away with it. But if Gordon Brown thought he'd won the hearts and minds of the entire American political classes he'd be wrong.
Over here, his chat with the new President and his speech on the Hill did make some headlines. Over on your side the only news was that special award for Ted Kennedy. Congress may have given Mr Brown 17 ovations, but that's why they call it the clap trap.
By Ed Boyle
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