Alex Massie is a columnist for the Times of London.
Donald Trump arrived in London on Monday to a less-than-thrilled welcome. Sky News teased a video of a giant balloon baby version of the president that is set to make an appearance in London this week. Activists gamely projected an image of Trump’s and Barack Obama’s dueling popularity ratings on the side of the Tower of London-a reminder that just 1 in 5 voters has a positive view of Trump, compared with nearly three-quarters for Obama. Although timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the visit inevitably emphasizes the distance between that era of cooperation and the present, more strained status of the “special relationship.”
“We should not be rolling out the red carpet for Donald Trump,” was how Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, put it. “Trump is doing great damage to British interests and our traditional alliance with the U.S.”
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Britons might be launching their predictably sniffy anti-Trump response to the visit, but the reality is that the United Kingdom today is in no position to scoff at other countries’ political misadventures. Both nations are still reeling from a political storm that hit in 2016. But as the United States processes the unorthodox and disruptive presidency of Donald Trump, Britain has become increasingly paralyzed-even broken-by the drama triggered by its vote to leave the European Union.Last month’s elections to the European Parliament were a disaster for outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling Conservative Party and little better for the major opposition party, Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn. Trump arrives in a country very much not at ease with itself.
There is little true purpose to his state visit, save to the extent that an invitation to Buckingham Palace indulges the American president. Tellingly, no one-on-one meeting has been arranged with the lame-duck May, who announced her upcoming resignation after failing to get her Brexit plan through Parliament. Like his hosts, Trump seems more interested in her successor than in poor May herself.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative former foreign secretary, is the candidate best placed to succeed May-but no fewer than a dozen Tory members of Parliament have confirmed they are running. Trump told the Sunday Times that Johnson was “a friend” who “would be excellent.” The basis for this estimation was, typically, that “he has been very positive about me and our country.” Johnson evinces an unsinkable confidence in his own ability to renegotiate a better deal with the EU, despite little evidence that a new, more palatable, agreement can be struck.
Trump is also a fan of the bombastic Nigel Farage, the former leader of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party who has returned to front-line politics as head of the newly formed Brexit Party. Although Parliament remains under the control of the traditional parties, Farage’s upstart had the single strongest showing of any in the European Parliament elections, and its leader vows that unless Brexit really means Brexit, his insurgent movement will destroy both the Conservative and Labour parties. “I like Nigel a lot,” Trump told the Sunday Times. “I got to know him when he liked my campaign, and he actually came to a speech, and I met him.” Farage, he suggested, should be included in any future Brexit talks. “Think how well they would do if they did. They just haven’t figured that out yet.” Silly them.
Although Trump will be the focus of the pomp and the protests this week, his presence in the UK is one of the few things capable of uniting Britain’s fractious politics. In a recent opinion poll, the public was asked to decide whether May or Corbyn would be the best possible prime minister. Fully 55 percent of respondents said they could not rank either politician better than the other. Twenty-three percent said May was preferable to Corbyn, and 15 percent deemed the Labour leader the superior option. That is, the opposition is no more trusted than a widely mistrusted ruling government.
British politics have been hollowed out by the remorseless logic of post-referendum politics, with each side more deeply entrenched than it started out. During the Brexit referendum in 2016, pro-leave politicians claimed Britain held “all the cards” as it began to negotiate the terms of its EU withdrawal. That was a fanciful distortion of what was plausible or probable. Now, rather than compromise or accept the logic of trade-offs, committed Brexiteers have redefined success as a clean, hard, “no deal” Brexit, in which the UK would leave the EU and trade with Europe on World Trade Organization terms. This would almost certainly produce an enormous economic shock, but as a political matter, it would “deliver” Brexit.
For their part, “remain” voters have been given little reason to compromise by a government that preferred to define Brexit in terms of managing the disparate parts of the Conservative Party, rather than as a truly national project. Brexit was for the 52 percent who voted “leave,” and that left little room for the 48 percent who opted to remain. Opinions have become so polarized that leave and remain identities are now stronger than traditional party allegiances.
Brexit cannot be achieved, but nor can it be escaped; there is no realistic way to make Brexit happen, but nor can the vote just be repealed. This is the fundamental paradox on which all else rests-and one that should be familiar to Americans, whose politics have turned into a similarly angry standoff around the popular but unkeepable promises of its president. There is no majority in the House of Commons for a “no deal” Brexit, but nor is there a majority to pass any agreement with the EU either. And so, the U.K. finds itself in limbo-the political version of a Samuel Beckett play.
Only a new prime minister and a new general election promises a release from this purgatory. But an election, at the present moment, promises more risks than rewards. One recent poll concluded that the combined level of support enjoyed by the Conservative and Labour parties has fallen below 40 percent. For the moment, the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, whose slogan in last month’s European Parliament elections was “Bollocks to Brexit” and Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party, for whom Brexit is, in the British vernacular “the dog’s bollocks” (i.e., a mighty fine thing), are carving up British politics between them.
In those European elections, more Conservative members voted for Farage’s Brexit Party than for their own tribe-a rebellion against the governing party’s inability to deliver Brexit. Labour, however, benefited little from the government’s plight. Many habitual Labour voters deserted the party and endorsed Liberal Democrat or Green candidates. Remarkably, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, and his former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, each admitted to voting Lib Dem.
That reflected an impatience with Labour’s policy of deliberate ambiguity on Brexit. The party wishes to give the impression of backing Brexit in pro-leave areas of northern England, while cultivating the notion that it is against Brexit in London and other key cities in the south of England. There, Labour dangles the possibility of a “public vote” on the eventual outcome of the Brexit negotiations, whereas elsewhere it insists the referendum result must be honored so long as the outcome is what the party calls a “jobs-first Brexit.” That no such thing exists is not something voters are encouraged to dwell upon.
An election might punish all the right people, but only at the price of rewarding another group of all the wrong people.
As much as Brits dislike Trump-and as quick as Trump was to criticize the mayor of his host city, Sadiq Khan, upon arrival-the truth is that the relationship between the United States and Britain does not depend on the strength of personal ties between the president and the prime minister. At the moment, given the absence of leadership in London and the caliber of leadership in Washington, this seems just as well.
Brexit was supposed to be a liberation of sorts, after which the U.K. would become a larger player on the world’s stage. Instead, it has ruined British politics and left the country seeming-and feeling-a smaller, lonelier place. A visit from Trump merely confirms this sense of isolation and weakness. An “America First” president is an unlikely ally for a country that is looking for a new role to play in the world’s affairs.
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