Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
  2. Americas
  3. North America
27 January 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 12:41pm

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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. 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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.