“I’d much rather have her as my friend than my enemy.” This was how President Trump described his relationship with Theresa May at their joint press conference to mark his first official trip to the UK as US President. The UK Prime Minister was quick to chip in that they were definitely friends.
If this is what friendship looks like, you’d hate to see how Trump treats his enemies. What was originally meant to be a trip to strengthen the special relationship backfired spectacularly and instead undermined May’s already fragile position. A Prime Minister not known for being particularly superstitious must have been left wondering if it was really such a good idea to invite the most controversial US president in history to visit on Friday 13th.
As May and her International Trade Secretary Liam Fox rolled out the red carpet and spoke up free trade with their close ally, The Sun released an exclusive interview in which Trump not only claimed that May had wrecked Brexit but also appeared to rule out a prized UK/US deal under her current plans. Given that the Conservative Party is currently tearing itself apart on the issue of whether or not May’s Brexit proposals allow for competitive free trade deals, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
A humiliating blow
It was a humiliating blow for an already beleaguered Prime Minister and Eurosceptic Tory MPs were quick to latch onto the comments as further proof that May had sold Brexit down the river. The US President added insult to injury by saying May had ignored his negotiating advice and claiming Boris Johnson – her leadership rival – would make a great Prime Minister.
Trump’s bad manners didn’t do himself many favours either, and the morning after the night before, it was clear that he was keen to make an amends. Cue a saccharine sweet press conference where the US president poured on the syrup thick and fast. Trump said that he had a truly tremendous relationship with May, and better still their relationship had got even more special thanks to the fact they had had breakfast, lunch and dinner together.
As for trade, Trump did his best to keep the prospect of that deal alive. Although he stressed that he wanted May to make sure that it was possible to do a deal that worked for both sides, Trump said that having spoken to May and her advisers, he now thought there was a way to go through with the Brexit white paper and still cut a deal.
As damage limitation exercises go it was a success, but the fact remains that Trump has only increased concerns amongst already anxious Tory MPs that No 10’s Brexit plan will not deliver on free trade. The signs have been there for some time. Ahead of the Chequers away day, the papers submitted to ministers explicitly admitted that May’s plans for a common rulebook with the EU for all goods including agri-food meant this deal “would not allow the UK to accommodate a likely ask from the US in a future trade deal”.
Trump’s reaction and that of the hardline Brexiteers is ultimately unsurprising. What is surprising is the way in which Theresa May and Downing Street have chosen to market their proposals.
Instead of having an honest conversation with Tory MPs, Conservative members and voters about the difficult trade-offs they are facing with Brexit, the Prime Minister would rather insist that nothing has changed and big free trade deals are still in the offing. Now there may still be competitive trade deals but they will not be as comprehensive as a lot of Brexiteers first hoped.
This is all why May must work out how to sell her deal to the public. Faced with a choice between friction or freedom, she has made the decision that on goods the UK is best served as a rule-taker, and on services – which makes up 80pc of the economy – the UK requires more choice and must be able to strike out. Given the number of manufacturing jobs that are calling for the former, that is an explainable choice.
Business as usual
There’s also the question of whether the public would really want a comprehensive UK/US trade deal. Despite all the talk of one, the idea of flooding the market with chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef has already proved an unappetising choice to many. British farmers too would worry that they would be undercut.
At present, however, none of these arguments are coming from No 10. Instead Theresa May is trying to say it’s business as usual. It isn’t. This week things have changed dramatically for the Prime Minister. Both her Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary have resigned and a Eurosceptic backbench rebellion is brewing. In short, she is facing the biggest crisis of her premiership since that disastrous snap election.
The silence from No 10 combined with loud complaints from Brexiteers means that public opinion is turning against her and her proposal. A YouGov poll found that 40 per cent of voters think her deal is too soft – a mere 13 per cent think it is “about right”. In other bad poll news, Labour have now reportedly pulled ahead. One thing that has protected her position to date is that the Tories have kept ahead of Labour in the polls. More polls showing the same would make May even more vulnerable to a leadership challenge. If she wants to avoid that fate, it’s time she had an honest conversation with the public – and fast.
Katy Balls is political correspondent for The Spectator
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