'Master of Twitter' Donald Trump shows up Downing Street's comms weakness

Donald Trump's suggestion that his ally Nigel Farage should become the UK's ambassador to the US shows up a weakness of PM Theresa May's comms team, according to political comms experts.

May: in a 'no-win' situation over Farage and Trump (©Sean Gallup/Matt Cardy/Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
May: in a 'no-win' situation over Farage and Trump (©Sean Gallup/Matt Cardy/Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted last night that Nigel Farage, leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and a frequent critic of 'establishment' politics, would "do a great job" as UK ambassador to the US.

While Trump and Farage are known to have a relationship, Trump's intervention took UK media and politicians - including Farage himself - by surprise. A response from Theresa May's Downing Street team, reported by the BBC and elsewhere, said: "There is no vacancy. We have an excellent ambassador to the US."

It is an awkward, tricky situation, PR leaders agree.

Nick DeLuca, director of The Shore Consultancy, and a former adviser to Democrat Senator Edward M Kennedy, said the situation was "tricky" for Downing Street. "Promoting Farage must really rile the Downing Street powers that be - but this is no ordinary politician you are sparring with. Trump is the master of using Twitter to float ideas, promote himself, his business and his friends and to bully his critics."

DeLuca, who splits his time between London and the US, also warned: "'There is no vacancy' is the kind of petulant throwaway that gets under the Donald's thin skin. Take care, I'd advise - he may return fire."

Gill Morris, who founded Connect Communications and now runs DevoConnect, said the situation was "awkward".

"Number 10 clearly hasn’t worked out how to handle Trump or even his tweets." she said, going on to say that May "knows she can’t ignore the Farage-Trump special relationship, but equally can’t be seen to indulge it".

Morris went on to say that May would be "damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t" work with the former UKIP leader, concluding: "Farage and Trump are not going to go away."

Gavin Devine, CEO of Porta-owned public affairs, financial and corporate firm Newgate Communications, said May is already damned.

"The response today is fine but it is far too late," he said. "Number 10 should have shut this down when it first came up. Farage has been given airtime for days, has looked credible and senior, and has generally run rings around Theresa May, reflecting the weakness of the current overly centralised Downing Street operation. Now, whatever they do with Farage, they lose."

Warwick Smith, managing partner of global public policy at Instinctif Partners, pointed out that the UK has recently voted, by way of Brexit, to "uphold national sovereignty" and make its decisions by itself, rather than have them made by foreign countries.

"It’s not a matter of being dismissive of President-elect Trump or anyone else, but of the UK’s sovereign right to appoint an ambassador that represents the interests and views of the UK as expressed through Parliament and the Government. The UK’s tradition of appointing career diplomats, with only a few rare exceptions, works extremely well," said Smith, who spent 16 years in Whitehall in various policy and negotiation roles.

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