Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom has erupted in disaster for Theresa May after the president gave a remarkable interview to the Sun in which he launched a racially charged attack on Sadiq Khan – who he blames for the spate of terror attacks in London – and criticised Theresa May’s Brexit plan, saying that he told her how to handle Brexit, but that she went her own way.
Adding to the Prime Minister’s difficulties, he also claimed that the deal she is proposing is not what people voted for back in June 2016 – and that it will render a US-UK trade deal impossible. Oh, and he thinks Boris Johnson would be a great prime minister. But at least May can take comfort in Trump’s claims – a measure of his grasp of politics and nuance – that he has “never said anything bad about her”.
There is a lot to go over here. The first is that the attack on Sadiq Khan is both an opportunity and a test for Conservative politicians that at the time of writing, most of them are failing. Only Sarah Wollaston has come out and criticised the dog-whistle attacks on Khan in particular and immigrants in general.
The second is that a US-UK trade deal is dead in the water anyway, firstly because the promises made, not by Theresa May, but by Vote Leave, about the Irish border make it impossible, and secondly because public opinion is squarely against the specific provisions that would come with any UK-US deal, regardless of who is president, and British antipathy to Trump in particular makes that even harder.
The third is that this is a truly remarkable moment in Anglo-American relations: Barack Obama’s intervention before the referendum was one encouraged (and perhaps even scripted) in Downing Street by the elected government. This intervention is one against a British Prime Minister.
Politically, opinion of May’s deal will be shaped not by its content but how political elites respond to it. That there is no sustained attempt on the part of Downing Street to sell the plan on the airwaves, though they are briefing selected groups of journalists and commentators on the issue, means that the numbers of voters telling pollsters that the Chequers plan is a bad one is likely to increase.
The good news for May is that Trump is not a trusted political figure in the United Kingdom. 77 per cent of voters dislike the US president, and what we would expect from his intervention is a slight reduction in his unpopularity among committed Leave voters, and an increased openness to May’s Chequers plan among swing Leave voters and Remain voters who have accepted the result.
That should be an opportunity for the government to get back on the front foot and sell its proposals to the public, to explain why they aren’t Brexit in name only, and to reassure Conservative MPs who aren’t ideologues but are worried about their seats that a deal with the European Union doesn’t spell electoral doom.
If done properly, Trump’s intervention could be the making of May’s Brexit strategy just as “back of the queue” put a spring in Vote Leave’s step.