An injudicious remark by the President can plunge May into trouble, writes Con Coughlin
Theresa May could end up the loser from Trump's UK visit
The timing of US President Donald Trump’s long-delayed visit to Britain could hardly be less auspicious for Theresa May’s crisis-ravaged premiership.
Having spent 18 months trying to arrange the Anglophile Mr Trump’s first visit since being elected President, Mrs May now finds herself having to host the American leader at a time when her leadership is under intense pressure over her handling of the Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
Her plan for trying to arrange an orderly disengagement from the EU, the so-called Chequers memorandum, when Britain’s membership formally ends in March next year has attracted fierce criticism from senior members of her own Conservative party, and has so far prompted the resignations of Brexit Minister David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as well as a clutch of other junioir ministers and party officials.
The political crisis created by Mrs May’s desire for a “soft” Brexit, one where the UK will continue to abide by EU trade agreements and laws long after it has left, has placed her premiership in a precarious position, with Tory party activists openly warning that she could face a leadership challenge if she does not change tack and ditch the Chequers agreement.
And her plight will not be helped by the arrival in Britain of Mr Trump, someone who has revealed himself as an avowed supporter of a hard Brexit, one in which Britain would cut its ties with the EU’s cumbersome and protectionist bureaucracy, thereby freeing the country to make lucrative trade deals with the rest of the world.
The American leader’s dislike for European institutions was made plain during his attendance at this week’s Nato summit, where his extraordinary attack on Germany, which he accused of being “totally controlled by Russia” was as much about his long-standing-resentment at the trade deficit between Europe and the U.S. as it was his frustration at the failure of most European members states of Nato to meet their spending commitments on defence.
Mr Trump’s dislike for the EU has already seen him start a trade war with the bloc by implementing tariffs on exports such as steel, with the EU responding with its countermeasures of its own. And the president’s anti-EU stance has even resulted in Mr Trump claiming that he could do a better job at negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU than Mrs May, as he would take a “tougher” attitude than Mrs May.
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All of which puts Mrs May in an unenviable position, as the president’s presence in London will inevitably draw comparisons between her own, tentative style of government, and the more forthright, determinedly pro-British style preferred by the likes of Mr Johnson, who could well emerge as a serious rival to her leadership later this year.
But, given the delays that have occurred in arranging Mr Trump’s visit to Britain in the first place, Mrs May had little option but to bite the bullet and hope that it does not inflict even more harm on her already battered reputation.
While Mrs May was given the honour of being the first Western leader to visit Mr Trump at the White House following his victory in the 2016 presidential election campaign, it has taken the British prime minister 18 months to repay the compliment.
Mr Trump has been feted at a number of European capitals - most notably the over-the-top reception he received from French President Emmanuel Macron during last year’s Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. But numerous attempts to get him to visit Britain have been stymied over fears his presence would spark mass protests.
This was the most likely explanation for Mr Trump’s last-minute decision to cancel plans for him to open the new American Embassy in London, which has been built in the up-and-coming Vauxhall district on the south bank of the Thames. Mr Trump, who prides himself on his business acumen, claimed the new complex, which replaces the iconic building in Grosvenor Square, was a bad property deal, and that the new embassy had been built in the wrong location.
It is such off-the-cuff outspokenness that makes Mr Trump a difficult guest to handle, especially for a prime minister whose survival hangs in the balance, one who could find herself even more isolated if the president chose to make just one injudicious remark about her handling of the Brexit negotiations.
Mrs May must also deal with the American leader’s deep unpopularity among many British voters, with campaigners having won permission to fly a large inflatable balloon over London during the visit depicting the leader of the free world as a giant baby dressed in a nappy. It is a far cry from the rapturous scenes that greeted President John F Kennedy when he and his wife visited Britain in June 1961, as crowds of enthusiastic onlookers lined the road from Heathrow airport into central London.
But Mr Trump’s visit to London is not aimed at increasing his popularity, but to have discussions with the British government over potential new trade deals with Washington, and also the future of defence and intelligence cooperation between the two countries.
Observers will be paying especially close attention to how well the American president gets on with the British Prime Minister, especially as it has been suggested Mr Trump finds it hard to deal with Mrs May’s school-mistress-like tone, and feels more at ease in the company of more personable Tory politicians, such as Mr Johnson.
Indeed, Mr Trump has indicated he would like to meet up with the former foreign secretary during his four-day visit, a move that could prove deeply embarrassing for Mrs May given her Brexit position obliged Mr Johnson to resign his post earlier this week. Mr Trump’s visit, so far as Mrs May is concerned, is therefore more of an exercise in damage limitation that using the president’s visit to boost her own beleaguered position.
Con Coughlin in the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor