'BFFs with The Donald' - May took Trump by the hand and he led her to disaster

Theresa May is aligning herself with Trump the individual, not with the United States, and it could be fatal to her political credibility.

Donald Trump and Theresa May hold hands during the Prime Minister's visit to the White House last Friday (©Olivier Douliery/Pool Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images)
Donald Trump and Theresa May hold hands during the Prime Minister's visit to the White House last Friday (©Olivier Douliery/Pool Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images)

The Prime Minister would have settled into her seat on the plane out of Washington last weekend feeling things went pretty well.

A well-received speech to Republicans followed by a warm reception from Trump and the kind of assurances she wanted with, in ascending order of importance to Tory heartlands, a public backing of NATO, a possible trade deal and Winston Churchill’s bust back in the Oval office.

Off she went to flog arms to President Erdogan of Turkey (think: leaving Hitler to visit Mussolini) assuming that the US visit went as well as she could have hoped.

What followed could hardly have been gone more badly.

The photos of Donald Trump taking May by the hand were clammy enough, and the fact she didn’t recoil in horror showed impressive restraint. But it showed a willingness to be close to Trump that has proved seriously undermining since.


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Trump’s Muslim ban has taken his position as the world’s most toxic figure to new levels, but May’s failure to even engage with the issue at first, smirkingly describing it as the US’s business, showed a craven failure to challenge Trump as she said she would.

By the time Number 10 realised that the high ground was crumbling, a late (Sunday) night statement which dared to disagree was spectacularly inadequate.

The decision to ask Trump on a State Visit layered marzipan, icing and a bag of cherries on top.

Short of marking out a golf course in St James’ Park, Number 10 could hardly be more desperate in its desire to be BFFs with The Donald, yet even that was handled with extraordinary cack-handedness as May’s press team went through the stages: from denial (the ‘government’ invited him) to blame (the previously unknown ‘state visit committee’ invited him) to acceptance (OK, OK, it was May who asked him).

And now Foreign Office officials past and present are briefing that it’s unfair on the Queen to put her in such a difficult position by giving Trump State Visit status (translation: don’t taint Her Majesty with this toxic brand).

May’s problem was that she looked at the prize (a trade deal) not the context (she’s dealing with one’s of the world’s most divisive figures).

She’s dabbling in diplomacy which, done well, is a far-sighted art and looks at the world as it will be, rather than as it is, and makes judgements based on the slow movement of geopolitical tectonic plates, rather than short-term gains.

And she’s not very good at it.

Foreign Office officials, wary of keeping Boris Johnson on a short leash, would have been driven to deeper despair by the fact that May is aligning herself with Trump the individual, not with the United States.

It’s like visiting the Romanovs and coming away with an arrangement to meet Rasputin for a couple of beers.

Jimmy Leach, former Downing Street and Foreign Office digital comms chief
Her visit itself was not arranged with the State Department, as might be expected (and who are rumoured to be in revolt), but with the inner circle of Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and the other courtiers from hell. 

She’s building personal, not institutional relationships, and they won’t last. It’s like visiting the Romanovs and coming away with an arrangement to meet Rasputin for a couple of beers.

Still, she might get a trade deal, she can wave cheerfully at us all and she’ll certainly see more demonstrations against Trump outside her front door. 

What she’ll need to decide is whether the one is worth the other, or whether Trump toxicity will rub off on her in a manner fatal to her political credibility.

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital comms in Downing Street and was also head of digital diplomacy in the Foreign Office


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