After Donald Trump’s election as US President in 2016, many Brexiteers rejoiced. Here, they said, was a man who would spare the UK from the chill of isolation.
In a Times interview with Michael Gove in January 2017, Trump duly hailed Brexit as a “great thing” – “I thought the UK was so smart in getting out” – and promised a trade deal with the US “very quickly”. But Trump, as some warned, is a man liable to change his mind with child-like frequency.
And so he has. In a stunningly hostile intervention, to coincide with his UK trip, Trump has told the Sun that Theresa May’s planned Brexit agreement will “probably kill” any deal with the US (“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal.”) “I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me,” he continued, knowingly humiliating his host. May, who unlike Angela Merkel overtly courted Trump, has been repaid with insults, rather than favours.
For good measure, Trump added that Boris Johnson, who resigned from May’s cabinet four days ago, would make “a great prime minister” and denounced Sadiq Khan for “a very bad job on terrorism” (in a possibly related event, the Mayor of London has agreed to allow a baby blimp of Trump to be flown in London today).
The interview confirms Trump’s boundless – and shameless – capacity to offend. But it also shows that Brexit, as Remainers long warned, risks leaving the UK friendless. No Prime Minister in recent history has been as simultaneously unpopular with the US and Europe as May (the Commonwealth, meanwhile, was alienated by her “hostile” immigration policy).
For decades, Britain’s EU membership enhanced, rather than diminished, its relationship with America. In a globalised era, the UK retained relevance as one of the senior members of the world’s largest single market. But the Brexit vote wilfully disregarded this status – and it was always a fantasy to believe that any deal with the US would compensate.
Trump, an America First protectionist, has never shown much concern for the UK’s interests. And the obstacles to a deal have long been obvious. The prospect of chlorine-washed chicken entering the UK was enough to split the cabinet (with Michael Gove vowing to block it as Environment Secretary); hormone-injected beef and acid-washed pork would likely fare no better. Were Britain to adopt US standards, it would undermine continued trade with the EU: there is no cost-free option.
May, mindful that Europe accounts for 44 per cent of UK exports, has incrementally proposed a softer Brexit (a customs partnership and remaining in the single market for goods). But this, predictably, has proved too much for Trump – and not enough for the EU. The US president and Brussels are both antagonised by the UK’s “cherry-picking” – Britain seemingly wants the benefits of both relationships without committing to either.
Faced with a choice between Trump and the EU, there is no contest. One is a unashamed racist, misogynist and bigot, the other is one of the world’s pre-eminent champions of human rights. The ideological and sentimental appeal of “the Anglosphere” to Conservatives is obvious. But the economic appeal is not. Indeed, the government’s own analysis suggests that the UK would lose between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP over 15 years from a “hard Brexit” (withdrawal from the single market and the customs union), while new deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent.
But as Conservative leader, May, a Remainer, had no choice but to embrace Brexitism – with predictably baleful consequences. The UK has alienated both the EU and the US with nothing to show for it.
Many of May’s predecessors in No.10 agonised as they sought to reconcile both relationships. But the Prime Minister risks the choice being made for her: in the Brexit era, the UK will have neither.