Open Essay

May Be Not

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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The British prime minister was Donald Trump’s first foreign visitor. The cost of a friendship

FOR MORE THAN six months now, the people of the United Kingdom, and the thousands of foreign nationals who live and work here, have been inhabiting limbo-land. To some, it’s more like purgatory. Is the final destination going to be heaven or hell? For some, it is the cause of immense anxiety, although most Brits are generally rather phlegmatic by disposition. What will be will be. Why waste too much time or emotional energy worrying about something you can’t do much about?

The British had their moment of supreme political power and they exercised it—voting narrowly in a referendum last June to quit the European Union. Now we are living with the consequences. Or rather, we are just starting to learn what those consequences will be. And, however sanguine some people may feel, it’s not looking good.

Last week, Members of Parliament at Westminster voted to accept the will of the people, even though the majority of MPs were in favour of staying in the EU. Many of them were very unhappy with the parliamentary vote. Some rebelled. More gave their approval to start the process of leaving despite continuing to believe that it will be a monumental act of self-harm on behalf of the nation.

What made the vote even more extraordinary was that MPs were authorising the government to take Britain on a journey where the destination remains submerged in a dense cloud. Ministers still can’t tell us what post-Brexit Britain will look like.

Prime Minister Theresa May is by instinct a cautious politician. I’ve no idea if she’s a card player, although as the rather prim daughter of a country clergyman, I doubt it. Either way, she’d be great at poker. She gives nothing away unless she absolutely has to. But even the best, most Sphinx-like poker player has to put some cards on the table at some point. May did that with her recent visits first to Washington and then to Turkey. We got a glimpse of the future, and it wasn’t pretty.

It’s worth pointing out that all British prime ministers like to get close to whoever occupies the White House. Tony Blair, who I worked for in Downing Street, had a genuinely close friendship with Bill Clinton. After George W Bush was elected to succeed him, Blair wasted no time in cosying up to the new president. When after 9/11 Blair told Bush, “I’ll be with you whatever”, it set in train a sequence of events that ended catastrophically.

By rushing to the US to be the first foreign leader to meet President Donald Trump, May wasn’t doing anything that unusual. So far, so predictable for the Brits. Unfortunately for her, Trump is not a predictable man. While 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office were collectively slapping themselves on the back for beating the crowd to the head of the queue, Trump was preparing to make announcements that would turn what should have been a diplomatic triumph into a national humiliation.

He didn’t do it on purpose to embarrass May. I’m sure he didn’t give the impact on her reputation a second thought. The White House didn’t deliberately humiliate the prime minister by getting her name wrong in its press release either. Although the media gleefully pointed out that Teresa May (without the ‘h’ in her first name) apparently made her name as a porn star.

Then there was the photograph of the two leaders holding hands on the way to speak to the media. This was later explained as being a consequence of Trump’s ‘bathmophobia’, a condition 99.9 per cent of the world’s population had never heard of. We now learn that it’s a fear of falling while going down stairs. But whether he grabbed her hand for safety or to symbolise the continuing strength of the so-called ‘special relationship’, it is a picture she will come to regret many, many times in the months and years ahead.

By rushing to the US to be the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump, May wasn’t doing anything that unusual. So far, so predictable for the Brits. Unfortunately for her, Trump is not a predictable man

Your correspondent likes to be fair to any prime minister, even one I didn’t or wouldn’t vote for. Although, for the record, nobody actually voted for May. One of the consequences of the Brexit result was that she became prime minister without even having to be elected by her own party, never mind the country.

In Washington, she did achieve some diplomatic wins for which many countries around the world should be thankful. She got him to agree that he was ‘100 per cent behind NATO’, that the US wouldn’t go back immediately to torturing detainees, and that it might be premature to start lifting sanctions against Russia. Although for a man as inconsistent as Trump, it’s hard to say how bankable those promises actually were.

Theresa May had three main objectives, best summarised as symbolism, trade and security. With the usual imprecise waffle about the closeness of the bond between the US and the UK, she’d have been happy with the symbolism. On trade, there were warm words too. But underlying them was the stark reality that post-Brexit Britain has a very weak hand to play. Trump, who prides himself as a ‘dealmaker’, would have spotted that weakness immediately.

As the astute Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, put it: ‘His lifelong training was in real estate, an area in which there is rarely such thing as a win-win deal: the more you get, the more I pay. He will have seen May as that most desperate of creatures: the house-buyer who rashly sold her old house before she had found a new one.’

Which brings us to security and the firecracker Donald Trump had ready to set off the moment the wheels of the plane carrying May away from Washington left the ground.

President Trump’s Executive Order restricting the admission of refugees and imposing a temporary ban on all citizens from seven mainly-Muslim nations was anathema to Britain. Not because London is soft on Islamist terrorism. Far from it. The UK is widely regarded as one of the most successful nations in combatting the jihadist threat. It is precisely because we base our policy on experience and facts—unlike Trump—that Britain could see straight away what a catastrophic own goal the announcement was.

As the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who now runs the New York-based International Rescue aid agency, said, Trump’s policy “is a repudiation of fundamental American values, an abandonment of the United States’ role as a humanitarian leader and, far from protecting the country from extremism, a propaganda gift to those who would plot harm to America”.

Authoritative figures from the Cato Institute, said Miliband, suggested that, “the chances that a [US] citizen will be killed by a refugee are one in 3.64 billion a year; an American is far more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee”. Meanwhile the draconian ban will act as a recruiting sergeant not only for genuine terrorists who might wish to threaten the US from outside, but also to home-grown jihadists and those susceptible to radicalisation.

Tens of thousands of protestors had amassed to condemn both the American President and the British PM. Perhaps the most wounding of the placards, from her point of view, read ‘Theresa the Appeaser’

Theresa May is a former Home Secretary, responsible for keeping the streets of Britain safe. She knows the arguments all too well. That she refused three times to condemn the Executive Order when asked merely added to her humiliation. The impression continued to grow that she had gone to Washington not as a strong partner but as a supplicant.

Once again, the response of Germany’s Angela Merkel, who I have described in Open magazine before as showing genuine political and moral leadership, shone through. Her staff revealed that she had called President Trump and told him that the Geneva Convention on Refugees calls on the international community to accept war refugees on humanitarian grounds—and that signatory states are “obliged to do so”.

Merkel is not only Chancellor of Germany, but she is also the de facto political leader of the European Union. Many other EU governments echoed her sentiments. What they made of the stance of Theresa May, who is now at best a semi-detached member of the European leaders’ club, was made perfectly clear when they met last week for a summit in Malta. May was given the diplomatic cold shoulder as one after another they condemned Trump’s ignorance and rashness.

By a cruel twist of fate, May’s initial equivocation was filmed when she was put on the spot by journalists at her next port of call after leaving Washington, Turkey. Here she met President Erdogan whose response to domestic unrest is to jail journalists and human rights activists, close down media houses and dismiss thousands of judges, teachers and academics.

New defence and trade deals with Turkey were announced, including a major deal for fighter planes.

Bizarrely, May did have words of warning for the Turkish regime, while refusing to criticise America. President Erdogan looked decidedly uncomfortable as she said, “It is important that Turkey sustains democracy by maintaining rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do.”

Tukey has taken in some three million Syrian refugees since the war across its border to the south began. To see the United States slam the door on Syrians in particular was galling to behold. Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim said his country could not turn a blind eye to human suffering. “Nobody leaves their homes for nothing. They came here to save their lives. Our doors are open. This is the most holy, sacred thing—to save a life.” He added pointedly that building walls was not a solution.

By the time May returned to London, the weakness of her response to the American move was causing her real political damage. Members of her own party at Westminster realised that they could be directly affected. Using Trump’s preferred method of communication, the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi tweeted, ‘What if you are British of Iraqi origin, as I am? A sad sad day to feel like a second class citizen! Sad day for the USA.’

Belatedly, Downing Street issued a late-night statement on the prime minister’s behalf saying simply that she did not agree with the Trump immigration ban. May later called it “divisive and wrong”. But the damage to her reputation had already been done by then.

Last Monday evening, I was on the demonstration outside Downing Street where I had once worked. It was impossible to move more than a few inches at a time. Tens of thousands of protestors had amassed to condemn both the American President and the British prime minister. Perhaps the most wounding of the placards, from her point of view, read ‘Theresa the Appeaser’.

What angered the crowd most was not so much her silence or her equivocation. It was her over-hasty decision to invite President Trump for a state visit to the UK later this year. Although most US presidents are accorded this honour, the invitation generally comes well into their first term of office, not in the first week. It looked very much as if Britain was pandering to Trump’s vanity and demeaning itself in an effort to win his favour.

State visits are hosted by Her Majesty the Queen who loathes to be embroiled in political controversy. Although the Palace would never say so, we can be sure that the Queen was deeply embarrassed to see so many of her citizens on the streets condemning the invitation. If and when Trump does visit, and takes the customary ride in the Royal Coach alongside the monarch, the demonstrations will be on an unprecedented scale.

MAY HAD BEEN happy to pose with Donald Trump alongside a bust of Sir Winston Churchill which had been restored to the Oval Office after being removed by President Obama. She will have been less pleased to read a tweet from the former British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher. With a photo of Sir Winston, it quoted the war-time prime minister: ‘An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.’

As the Bible tells us, ‘by their friends shall ye know them’. As we turn our backs on our old friends in the European Union, with their proud defence of human rights, and seek to forge new and stronger bonds elsewhere, those words ring true. By virtue of the collective strength of the European economy, Merkel and her colleagues can stand their ground against the US, and, the usual diplomatic niceties notwithstanding, speak their mind. It is less clear that the UK, whose people voted to ‘take back control’ of their sovereignty, will enjoy the same freedom.

In a harsh competitive environment, both politically and economically, one thing is certain. We will need all the friends we can get. Now that we have seen a preview of what post-Brexit Britain will look like, we have to ask how high a price we are willing to pay for that friendship.