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27 January 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 9:47am

Theresa May walks the tightrope with Donald Trump – so far

The Prime Minister will be pleased with herself - but she is not on the other side of the ravine just yet. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s trip to see Donald Trump was fraught with peril. It held out the possibility of a great prize: a sign of viability for the Brexit project through the promise of a trade deal with the United States.

But it also held great danger: May will know only too well that a decade ago, Tony Blair was in the final months of his time in Downing Street, and that a once popular Prime Minister saw his standing at home diminished due to his proximity to an unpopular American president.

Though May regularly tops the league as far as the popularity rankings are concerned, she is nowhere near Blair at the peak of his popularity. Trump, meanwhile, is an entirely different – and more terrifying – type of politician than the younger Bush ever was.

May did a good job of marking out areas of disagreement, first in her speech to Republican lawmakers in Philadelphia, and then today, through her careful performance in front of the cameras. A particular gem: her use of the word “stunning” to describe Trump’s victory. The President will likely take very differently than Conservative MPs watching at home.

As far as the coalition that matters to May right now – that is, Conservative MPs – the event was an unlimited success. She kept the idea of a trade deal on the road, but didn’t bend the knee to Trump. It was a tricky tightrope, but she walked it well.

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But she is nowhere close to the other side of the ravine just yet. As I’ve written before, Trump almost always lies, so you can take almost everything he says with an oceansworth of salt.

But pay attention to what he didn’t say: he didn’t rule out lifting sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, nor did he move any closer to May’s more hostile position towards the Russian autocrat. He might not have contradicted May as far as the importance of Nato is concerned, but he didn’t back her up, either.

Neither of them talked about the Iran deal, which Trump has pledged to dismantle and May has defended. Though in terms of the Russian question: the Kremlin put a lot of energy into the Iran deal and if Trump and Putin do fall out, it will surely be over the Iran deal.

There was evidence, too, of the chill winds that could yet blow May off the tightrope, in Trump’s reaction to a tough question from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. A visibly angry Trump caused nervous laughter by saying “there goes that relationship”. Trump’s distaste for dissent and the free press is on full display whenever you check Twitter, and sooner or later May may be forced to publicly upbraid him or face a barracking back home.

Absent, too, was any real commitment on the Holy Grail of this trip: that US-UK trade deal.

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