Orcadian Column 01/02/2017

I recently finished reading ‘Politics, Between the Extremes’, the very candid autobiography by former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what happens, but he does offer a fascinating insight into the now infamous joint press conference with David Cameron in the Downing Street Rose Garden.  

Not surprisingly, Nick believes this was an error that provided an image of ‘cosiness’ with the former Prime Minister that would haunt him and the party repeatedly over the next five years. Seeing the pictures of Theresa May and Donald Trump walking hand in hand around the White House gardens last weekend, it is hard not to imagine a similar fate now awaits the current Prime Minister.

For a visit that was hailed initially as ‘a triumph’ by sections of the UK media, it has all rather turned to dust subsequently. She may have been the first foreign head of state to visit the United States since President Trump’s inauguration, but this was one occasion where the advantages of prime mover were not obvious. Given his erratic behaviour throughout the campaign that saw him elected to the White House, and then in the weeks leading up to his inauguration, surely there was someone in Mrs May’s circle of advisers extoling the benefits of taking time to assess the lie of the land.

Yet such is the desperation of the Prime Minister and her government post the Brexit vote to be seen to be striding the world stage setting up trade deals, all caution is being thrown to the wind.

I dare say Donald Trump is not the President Mrs May was hoping for and reality dictates that a relationship with the new US administration has to be forged. However, even with a President who appears to require flattery in the same way others require oxygen, Mrs May’s simpering talk of ‘the dawn of a new era of American renewal’ was ill-judged.

For all the talk of a ‘special relationship’, UK Prime Ministers have consistently over-estimated or chosen to exaggerate the extent of their influence over their presidential counterpart. In the case of Tony Blair and George W Bush, the consequences of this are still being felt following the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it should have come as no surprise to Mrs May as she touched down in Ankara on the next leg of her trade tour that President Trump was busy signing an Executive Order introducing a temporary ban on citizens from seven mainly Muslim countries, though strangely not those where the President has business interests, from entering the US. The same applies to all refugees, while the ban on refugees from Syria is indefinite. So much for Mrs May’s talk of ‘shared values’.

As with his other Executive Orders and presidential memoranda, President Trump is deliberately and shamelessly playing to his political base, providing his supporters with the populist ‘quick wins’ they crave. The fact his actions may be challenged in the courts and have already sparked mass public protests in the US and around the world almost seems to suit President Trump, who will portray it as the response of a liberal elite determined to thwart his efforts to put America First.

Initially, the response from the UK government was slow and muted. Eventually, efforts were made to safeguard the interests of UK citizens and Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has even argued, quite rightly, that the Trump’s travel bans could gift ISIS a ‘propaganda opportunity’.

All of which begs serious questions about why the Prime Minister saw fit to offer President Trump a full state visit to the UK later this year; an honour bestowed on no other recent US President during their first year in office. Within 24 hours, 1.5 million people had signed a petition calling for the invitation to be revoked. No word yet on whether the Queen was one of them.

The visit, though, is likely to go ahead amid all the usual pomp and ceremony. I shudder to think what President Trump has planned between now and when he turns up for his own Rose Garden moment with Mrs May.

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