Steve Richards: Theresa May is trapped in a film noir of her own making
Written by Opinionon 31 January 2017 in
The PM did not have to offer him Donald Trump a speedy state visit, but she fell for the spell of the special relationship - and she is not the first to do so.
In the space of a few days Theresa May has discovered that the UK's role in the so called special relationship is the equivalent of following a ‘femme fatale’ in a film noir. Prime Ministers pursue the relationship with pathetic resolution. They experience an intoxicating few days when they visit Washington and other parts of the US. As they return with misjudged euphoria they are clobbered over the head.
May is fortunate in one respect. She was clobbered quickly and has a chance to learn the lessons. Tony Blair and David Cameron have still to learn that their showy subservience contributed towards their doom. Perhaps they dare not learn.
After her meeting with President Trump May and her team left Washington on a high, familiar to any departing Prime Minister and their entourages. Her speech to Republicans had gone down well. Her potentially hazardous press conference with Trump had been trouble free. Only the image of the two of them holding hands worried Number Ten a little. But that concern, an image of a Prime Minister physically bound to a wildly unpredictable President, was more than compensated as they saw it by the overall success of her trip.
By the time May and her advisers had returned to Europe they were in trouble. While they were in the air Trump had imposed his unfocused, foolish, provocatively selective and counter productive ban on citizens from seven Muslim dominated countries. May does not think on her feet. She can make well- crafted speeches, but needs time to come to a position. She refused to condemn the ban at a press conference in Turkey and then found herself in the nightmarish position of discovering that potential victims of the ban included a Conservative MP and one of the UK’s star athletes, Mo Farrah.
Instead of relaxing and celebrating their US trip May and her jet lagged advisers began sleeplessly to deal with a crisis. They had been clobbered. What were they to do? What could they do? They had just returned from a Washington love in during which the offer of a glittering state visit was made to a childishly thrilled President. They did not want to undermine the relationship. They are pathetically desperate for a trade deal with the protectionist President who has declared openly he will put America first. As a new Prime Minister May wants to be a player on the international stage, a role that will be partly defined by a strong relationship with the US president. And yet her new ally had acted outrageously.
In a panic stricken few days May and her advisers have sought what Tony Blair would call a Third Way. Belatedly and without citing Trump Number Ten has expressed general concern about the ban and sought safeguards for UK citizens while insisting the state visit will go ahead.
In a statement to the Commons the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, navigated this third way by stating Trump’s policy was “not an approach this government would take” while hailing the alliance with the US. What a contrast to his and other Brexiteers hyped up onslaughts on the EU, blaming Europe for everything from the underfunding of the NHS to the lack of housing in areas “left behind”. When a US President acts with immoral bigotry he and others tiptoe around the mayhem cautiously. With Europe they invent mayhem. In an ironic twist Angela Merkel, was who was quick to condemn the policy, speaks for most of the UK. But Merkel can afford to be candid with Trump because she leads a government that plans to remain part of the single market and the customs union. Unlike the UK government she is not pathetically dependent on Trump.
May is trapped but she has partly chosen to be incarcerated. She did not have to rush out to greet Trump. She did not have to offer him a speedy state visit, but she fell for the spell of the special relationship and what it can offer the UK in practical terms and in political prestige. She is not the first to do so. Deeply insecure about his party's hold on power Tony Blair was determined to show that a Labour Prime Minister could work closely with a Republican president following the election of President Bush. Even after the war in Iraq one of his advisers argued that Blair calculated Middle England voters were impressed when they saw their Prime Minister sharing the stage with a US president. Hugely sensitive to media criticism Blair was not especially bothered by accusations that he was Bush’s poodle, assuming that his pro Bush approach was working wonders with key voters and in parts of the media he was most bothered about. Soon voters turned on him and the Middle England newspapers were fickle too.
David Cameron, as usual performing a pale imitation of Blair, sought a similar intimacy with President Obama. Yet Cameron fumbled hopelessly unable to win a vote in the Commons on the planned military adventure with the US in Syria, one that Obama later admitted had not been thought through. Not even Margaret Thatcher benefited very much from her genuinely close relationship with President Reagan. She would have won landslides anyway in the 1980s and Reagan put US interests first even when they clashed with hers.
May is more reserved and less ostentatious than Blair and Cameron. To her credit she will be less intoxicated by joint press conferences and the White House VIP treatment than the duo that were fascinated by the theatre of politics and their own role in the performance. But because of Brexit she needs the special relationship to be special much more than her predecessors did.
This week MPs will vote to trigger Article 50. The advisory referendum on Brexit took place before Trump’s election. Most MPs oppose a hard Brexit and May’s dependency on Trump that is a consequence of leaving the EU. They have the power to stop both and yet will not do so. Historians will look back at this period with dark fascination. The Brexit referendum was partly won on the false assumption that a cocooned elite at Westminster ignore “the people”. In many cases against their own judgement, fearing the worst, MPs will trigger Article 50 because they are scared of defying “the people. As a result the film noir is far from over.
Picture by: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images.