Trump and May Test the “Special Relationship”
US President Donald Trump isn’t putting the UK at “the back of the queue”, as his predecessor Barack Obama warned the US would if the UK voted to Brexit. Looking back to that statement last spring shows just how much the shape of our world has changed. Obama and Cameron admitted that our eyes hadn’t deceived us when we noted their budding bromance in photographs. It was in defence of his ‘bro’ Dave that Barack made the strong case to remain, after all. A year ago, no one predicted we’d be seeing Trump and May trying to forge that transatlantic connection known as the “special relationship”.
Each have similar agendas of promoting trade and protectionism. Trump needs a foreign leader to help him appear more the statesman, less the salesman. He’s enjoyed Nigel Farage’s support, suggesting Farage be the UK ambassador to the US, in a brash gaff underlining his lack of diplomatic skill. After a first week spent using his presidential pen to slash treaties, build walls and speed pipelines, President Trump welcomes the Prime Minister as his first foreign leader to the White House.
A confirmed Anglophile, Trump’s mother was Scottish; he spent time there on his Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire golf courses. Trump might have invited May first, but she wasn’t his first call after winning the election and he spent more time speaking with Brit buddy Piers Morgan than the PM. He’s also already met with Nigel Farage and Michael Gove. On inauguration day, however, his first order of business was a spot of redecorating: putting Winston Churchill’s bust back into The White House’s oval office. This was to re-ignite an earlier smear made by Boris Johnson who’d said that “part Kenyan” Obama had an “ancestral dislike of the British empire” which made him move the bust. Obama responded that he loved Winston Churchill and David Cameron’s office leapt to Obama’s defence saying the bust had been moved before Obama took office. This wasn’t true, Obama had replaced the bust with one of Martin Luther King.
It was Churchill (whose mother was American) who recognised the “special relationship” in a 1945 speech that also included the timely words “charity toward each other’s shortcomings”. Trump’s team’s shortcomings include Sean Spicer’s putting his foot wrong on his first official press conference (after an aggressive statement riddled with untruths the previous Saturday which brought us a new term: “alternative facts”) when he said Mrs. May was “the head of state”. That’s the queen, of course.
The good cop, bad cop, ally game
One of the enduring tenets of the “special relationship” is taking the fall for one another, Theresa May demonstrated when she refused to comment on the failed Trident test. It’s been revealed that Obama asked Cameron to keep the failed launch secret because it was US technology that malfunctioned. When Ronald Reagan needed a loyal ally after the Iran-contra scandal, Margaret Thatcher flew to the US, giving interviews supporting him. She played the good cop or traded roles with him as the bad cop on the world stage.
Another political shell game of distraction was employed between Tony Blair and George W. Bush when Blair supplied “sexed up documents” justifying the Iraq invasion. Churchill had experienced the Iraq revolt against British rule in 1920, describing it as the “Mesopotamian entanglement” and would have advised the UK kept well out of the conflict. This special connection hasn’t always proved positive for the UK.
Margaret and Ron
“Isn’t she marvellous?” Ronald Reagan told aides as Margaret Thatcher scolded him down the White House phone for decisions she disagreed with. Theirs was a warm personal friendship of “ideological soul-mates”; they were of a single mind-finishing one another’s sentences-about the free market, low taxes and limiting government. It’s too early to compare Margaret Thatcher with Theresa May, although they’re both female Prime Ministers who’ve made accidental innuendos.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May said that Trump doesn’t understand the UK in response to his anti-immigrant declaration about London areas so radicalised that the police dare not enter them. It remains to be seen whether she has the same sound advice to offer Trump that Thatcher gave Reagan. Reagan was an actor before his political career, serving as governor of California and he was anxious to have Thatcher’s support in making sophisticated foreign policy decisions. Trump’s reality television turn was part of a life-long effort to publicise himself, to make his personal brand as famous as possible.
On the surface, the pair seem absolutely chalk and cheese, over-the top-Yank meets matronly Mrs May whose only indulgence is her famous fondness for(flat) footwear. Surprisingly, they share traits including a refusal to play political games. According to a Tory source, she and her Home Office team had a working style that’s “very closed, very controlling, very untrusting.” Also, “They see conspiracies around every corner and think everyone is either briefing against or undermining them, so they brief first.”
Beware currency collision course and remember Trump’s frenemy
Theresa May and Donald Trump can’t simply agree to a future bi-lateral trade deal that ticks all the boxes for each country and fills the UK’s looming account deficit. The US Congress must approve any deal which has taken, on average 3 1/2 years. With the UK out of the Eurozone 2 years after Article 50 is triggered, there’s a gap of at least a year before any deal begins. It’s likely the pound will have weakened in the interim, and it’s already reducing profits by 20% for UK exports since Brexit. The dollar has also dropped since Trump’s statement about it being too strong, and he’ll reduce it further, making American exports more competitive with the UK’s.
Even if Sterling stabilises, the US only accounted for 14.5% of UK imports in 2015 whereas EU bought 44% of UK goods and services. Even with stellar EU deals, there’ll be limited single market access to discourage other member countries from leaving. The EU won’t let The City continue the current financial passporting system, either. Nice as new friends are, there’s no chance that any deal May can make with Trump will stave off the massive financial repercussions that the UK will face when Brexit’s bite begins to be felt.
May must be cautious when she considers the friendship potential of the new US president, considering his track record with former friends that are now notorious frenemies. Once an honoured guest at Trump’s wedding to third wife Melania, he would later call Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in the most contentious election in US history. Had Clinton won the election, one imagines the pair of career politicians having a cordial meeting followed by a photo session where, no doubt, all smiles, they’d have spoken of a “special relationship”.
Trump, in support of Brexit, promised to treat the UK “fantastically”. It’s a worrying choice of words recalling Boris Johnson promising a “Titanic Brexit”. Fantastically means an extreme which might be superb or dreadful. Should the PM wear her wellies or stilettoes?