Nick DeLuca: Theresa May needs Donald Trump, but he needs her too

Famously, at a gathering of international diplomats in Europe a few years after the Iraq war started, a French government official noted sarcastically to a peer from another EU capital: “American Presidents always f**k you. The only difference between George W Bush and Bill Clinton is at least you got a hug from Clinton afterwards.”
I suspect Theresa May understood that lesson yesterday when she woke to morning coffee and The Sun.

Keeping on the right side of Potus

It seems almost impossible to know what the real nature of any relationship with Donald Trump is.
At Chequers, in a press conference that often challenged one’s ability to know what was real and what was imagined, the President repeatedly described the Prime Minister in glowing terms, just hours after he sabotaged her Brexit plan, praised a major rival and suggested that a trade deal with the US was dead in a newspaper interview.  Why does he do such things? I suspect he can’t help himself. And yet, still, those who need him – or more realistically, need the US – try to figure out how to ensure they remain on the right side of Potus.
And so he gets feted. On the Champs-Elysées by the President of France. In the Forbidden City. At Blenheim Palace. And he loves the feting, the pageantry, the celebration of his authority.

Insatiable desire to ‘win’

For months now American officials have noted that the trip itself was the actual point of the visit. There were no trade deals done, no contracts signed. Just a Palace dinner, a country house visit and tea with the monarch. One wouldn’t have to be a cynic to think that for a president obsessed with image, the mere fact that he made this trip – against the backdrop of protests from many in Britain – would satisfy his desire to “win”, to have his way.

It has been obvious, almost since the referendum, that a trade deal with the United States is the great post-Brexit prize that the Leave crowd must have as the totemic symbol of the economic benefit flowing from departure. Subsequently, the Government has tried its best to ingratiate itself with Washington, the White House and the President. Liam Fox has made numerous visits, as have the transport team (who are trying to ensure flights continue after 29 March 2019), the former Foreign Secretary and a number of others.

A Faustian arrangement

But the President taketh as well as giveth love.

One moment he brutally condemns London as a den of violent crime, led by a Mayor unable to manage his city. The next he pours adoration on the Queen, regaling us with stories about his mother and her Scottish roots. One afternoon he tells The Sun that the Prime Minister isn’t doing a very good job and the next afternoon he is praising her – and to some degree defending her as she deals with something which is very difficult.

One suspects that Mrs May understands that cosying up to the President is a Faustian arrangement she can’t avoid. There will be slings and arrows, some from Trump himself, many from her enemies and the commentariat, but she is thick-skinned and well armoured. The UK needs to get a trade deal and stay alongside the United States after Brexit. And while an intimate relationship with this president is probably not her ideal, it can’t seem much worse than some of the characters in her own Cabinet.

May doesn’t quit

Theresa May has proven herself to be resilient. She doesn’t quit. She needs Donald Trump and she’ll deal with the brutalism, the narcissism, the lack of experience if that’s what she has to do. She knew that before this trip and she certainly knows that now that it has passed.

The same will be true of the President. Even though he gets such obvious pleasure from tearing down, blowing up, and disrupting, he will understand that he needs the UK. Jim Mattis and the military will tell him that; Mike Pompeo and the Langley folk will note it as well.

In a way, Brexit allows Trump to befriend his natural ally in Europe while beating up the EU and the Germans in particular.

These are not natural bedfellows. The May-Trump special relationship is one of necessity rather than convenience. How long the music will last? That’s the real question.

Nick DeLuca is a Senior Partner at FleishmanHillard Fishburn in London, and a former aide to Teddy Kennedy
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