From the Economist
THERESA MAY’S private opinion of Donald Trump goes unrecorded, but she is surely not a natural fan. Before Mr Trump’s election the prime minister called his remarks on Muslims “divisive, unhelpful and wrong”. Fiona Hill, one of her powerful chiefs of staff, declared him a “chump” and Nick Timothy, the other, tweeted: “As a Tory I don’t want any ‘reaching out’ to Trump.” Mrs May flannelled in a television interview on January 22nd when asked about the president’s treatment of women, his disregard for NATO and his protectionism. In temperament the two leaders could hardly be less alike: one brash and operatic, the other cautious and meticulous. So expect the prime minister’s visit to the White House on January 27th to be a study in awkwardness: the mother superior dropping in on the Playboy Mansion.
The trip encapsulates a wider shift in London. Time was, everyone mauled Mr Trump. Boris Johnson, now the foreign secretary, said he betrayed a “stupefying ignorance” and branded him “unfit” to lead America. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, turned to Shakespeare: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?” A year ago MPs were debating banning him from Britain. Even Nigel Farage, whose serial electoral failures in Britain have not troubled his recent reinvention as a presidential cheerleader, used to call Mr Trump “wrong” and list the many things about the man that he “couldn’t support in any way at all”.
Today scorn is out; flummery is in. Mr Farage led the way, pitching up at Trump Tower in December for a cheesy photo with the then-president-elect, whose grasp of the former UKIP leader’s CV seems shaky. Then came Michael Gove’s turn in the golden elevator and the former justice secretary’s fawning newspaper profile of Mr Trump. Now Mr Johnson calls the election result “a good thing for Britain”. The country is even ready to put the queen within grabbing distance of America’s helmsman: plans are afoot for a summer state visit, in which Mr Trump reportedly wants the monarch to watch him golf at Balmoral, her Scottish estate.
This sycophancy is hardly new. Margaret Thatcher put up with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country. Tony Blair’s eagerness to be close to George W. Bush cost him European allies and took Britain into the Iraq war. But Mr Trump is different. Whereas Reagan and Mr Bush cherished the economic and security order in which Britain was a junior partner, Mr Trump threatens it. So why is Mrs May hurrying to Washington? Because Brexit compels Britain’s leaders to show that the country has powerful allies. And “my Maggie” (as the president calls Mrs May) is desperate to line up a Britain-America trade deal that can be closed as soon as Brexit takes place, probably in 2019.
Whether this will end happily is uncertain. In trade negotiations, size matters. Larger economies can stipulate terms that suit them. Britain, an economy of 60m people, has much less leverage in trade talks than the EU, a market of 500m, or the United States, one of 300m. Mr Trump may promise an agreement “very quickly” and to show other countries that it is safe to leave the EU by giving Britain generous treatment. But more than anything else he is an America First deal-wrangler who knows he has the upper hand. A rushed agreement could see the National Health Service opened up to American firms and environmental and food standards diluted (think hormone-treated beef). Such concessions could upset British voters, who backed Brexit partly because Leavers said it would help the country’s health-care system. They would also frustrate a trade deal with the EU, a much more important export destination.
The curious thing is that Brexit was supposed to be about “taking back control”: immunising the country from foreign whim and interest, while asserting national dignity and independence. Increasingly that looks like a bad joke. The British elite feels it has no choice but to prostrate itself before an American president it clearly finds odious. To keep businesses from moving elsewhere, Britain may have to shadow EU regulations and pay into EU programmes without the chance to shape either. Its trade deals will be forged with a fraction of the negotiating force that has long promoted its interests. That means more concessions to the tariff and regulatory preferences of foreigners. Its application to become a full member of the World Trade Organisation is yet another opportunity for others to impose conditions and costs.
An elusive independence
A fact of the modern world, sadly overlooked in the referendum, is bringing itself to bear on Britain: control and autonomy are not the same thing. The country is party to some 700 treaties, member of myriad international organisations and spends tens of billions on a nuclear deterrent unusable without America (this week it transpired that, at Washington’s behest, Parliament had been kept in the dark when a missile went off course in a test). In each of these cases, Britain trades pure self-determination for real influence: the ability to shape its economic, security and environmental circumstances. Its membership of the EU is just one of many such deals. Leaving the club reinstates some control to Britain but requires it to trade away control in other ways. Will the result be a country any more able to chart its own course, as chosen by its own democratically elected leaders? Watch the prime minister’s excruciating embrace of Mr Trump and decide.