Gordon Brown is so often criticized as dull and distant that even US President George W. Bush felt he could poke fun at the new British leader over his reputation as a "dour Scot" during their joint news conference.
But judging by Brown's rising popularity, the aloofness is proving to be one of his greatest assets, allowing him to avoid being cast in the deferential role of "Bush's poodle" - a taunt that followed former Prime Minister Tony Blair through most of his 10 years in office. A new poll shows Brown's Labour Party well ahead in a possible race with conservative rivals.
After the US news conference with Bush on Monday- Brown's first appearance as prime minister on a major world stage - British media yesterday favored Brown's stolid and solid showing over Bush's rambling informality.
When Brown took over from Blair, many wondered how his buttoned-up style would play overseas with leaders accustomed to a decade of Blair's smiles, casual dress and boyish demeanor. Blair's agreeable air made him seem likable, yet left him open to condescension - as when Bush called out "Yo, Blair!" to him at last year's Group of Eight summit.
By contrast, Bush appeared somewhat overshadowed at Monday's news conference at Camp David, Maryland, in the view of British observers.
"PM gives a signal that he's no poodle," the conservative Daily Telegraph headlined a story about the meeting.
"Even when Bush was trying to act friendly, his shoulders were slumped," body-language specialist Judi James told the newspaper.
She said Brown initially appeared discomfited by Bush's breezy ways, especially when the president did a bit of wild driving with Brown as a passenger in a golf cart. The British leader at that point "was holding the fixed grin of someone dreading an afternoon playing with a boisterous toddler," the left-leaning Guardian newspaper said.
Brown also stayed away from Bush's penchant from remarks that many foreigners see as excessively personal. Brown did not presume to be on a first-name basis with the US leader, nor to have insights into his character.
The Independent newspaper sniffed, "George Bush, expert diviner of global statesmen ... peered into the soul of Gordon Brown yesterday, and found it very good."
The Guardian suggested that Brown's distance was not just a matter of personal preference but of strategy aimed at achieving gravitas and staking out an independent position for his government, while continuing to pursue close relations with Washington, which Brown has described as Britain's most important partner.
Those style decisions underline strong policy statements from Brown, including his vow that Britain would make decisions about its troops in Iraq based on its own commanders' assessments.
An opinion poll by the Populus group published in The Times of London yesterday showed support for Brown's Labour Party rising to 39 percent - its highest level in 18 months - while the main opposition Conservative Party has declined to 33 percent.
Source: China Daily/agencies