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3 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 7:43am

Evening Call: Friends Like These

By Jonn Elledge

Just in case you were wondering why there was a vague orange glow on the horizon coming from the direction of Watford: Donald Trump is in town for the Nato summit. That means that the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind today is: which will the president do first? Accidentally undermine Boris Johnson’s election campaign by saying the wrong thing about the NHS? Or accidentally undermine Boris Johnson’s election campaign by coming out in support of Boris Johnson?

Comments made by Trump in the past suggest that he holds opinions that could do either (in so far as Trump ever holds any opinion, that is, rather than simply repeating the views of the last person he spoke to who he actually likes). He backed Johnson as the next Tory leader within days of Theresa May’s resignation, and has praised him, albeit with quite incredible vagueness, on several occasions since. (“He’s a friend of mine. I tend to watch friends closer than enemies, but the enemies you have to watch in a different way. I think he’s doing very well.” Thanks for clearing that up, Donald.)

As for the NHS, as our election mole reported this morning, Trump’s comments have been all over the place. In a 2015 appearance on a chat show, he was full of praise for the NHS (“Great doctors, great care. I mean we could have a great system in this country”). Last year, though, as part of his attack on the Democrats’ health reform plans, he tweeted that, “Thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U [universal healthcare] system is broke and not working.” Could go either way.

At any rate: if I were a Tory election strategist, the risk that Trump will say something that undermines the government’s message that the NHS is safe in their hands, and that it will definitely not be on the table in any US-UK trade negotiation – “We have the best drugs, folks, the best drugs. And by the way, we could help with your healthcare system, I hear it’s failing like a dog. But my friend Boris, people are calling him Britain Trump, not me, but people are saying it, has said he’ll get to that after he gets his majority. What do we think folks?”; that was an artist’s impression, don’t worry, he hasn’t said it, yet – would be keeping me up at night until he’s safely out of the country once again.

So far, Trump’s stayed surprisingly on message. He’s claimed to have no interest in the NHS (“If you handed it to us on a silver platter we want nothing to do with it”). And unlike previous visits, in which he claimed, wrongly, to be popular in Britain, he’s acknowledged that he isn’t, but taken it as evidence that he’s just so damned tough (“The reason they like Obama is because Obama gave the ship away, he allowed them to take everything”; yep, Barack Obama, famous pushover). This may well be why he’s promised he’ll stay out of the election – intervening in favour of Johnson is about the most damaging thing he could do to the guy.

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That said, this is just day one of a three-day visit. Donald Trump is not a man famed for his self-control. And a lot can happen in three days (actually, a lot can happen in 90 minutes, which is why I’m a little bit nervous that events have conspired to force me to file this one early, but we are where we are).

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The president may call Boris Johnson a friend. Whether the latter will still reciprocate when the week is out remains to be seen.

Good day for…

Climate consciousness. The Centre for Cities’ annual survey of what Britain’s urban councils are thinking found that fully half of them now cite tackling climate change as a top priority, up from just 5 per cent last year. The think tank credits the growth in climate awareness to the “Greta Effect”.

Don’t get too excited, though: more than two-thirds of council leaders and directly-elected mayors blamed insufficient funding as a barrier to action, while almost half (41 per cent) cited deficiencies in national government as an obstacle. Still, it’s a start.

Bad day for…

Haunted Kryten costume Dominic Raab, who had a shocker of an appearance on the Today programme this morning. The man who is, somehow, Foreign Secretary maintained that he had always been an opponent of NHS privatisation even as Nick Robinson read him extracts from a pro-NHS privatisation pamphlet which he co-authored in 2011.

“Well, it certainly wasn’t anything I wrote,” Raab spluttered, the vein in his temple pulsating unnervingly. Even so: all five of the authors of After The Coalition (Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss) are now in the government. So even if Raab is telling the truth – ironic pause – that isn’t entirely reassuring.

Quote of the day

“We’ve all been on holiday and seen that French farmer’s field with one pig, one cow and a brand spanking new tractor – who paid for that?”

Brexit party PPC for Rother Valley Alan Cowles, speaking at a meeting in Northumberland earlier. I personally didn’t realise that inadequate pig supplies were a big driver of Leave votes, but I guess that just goes to show what an out-of-touch metropolitan elitist I really am.

Everybody’s talking about….

Childhood poverty, after last night’s Channel 4’s Dispatches programme shone a light on the fact that four million British kids are growing up on the breadline.

Clips from the show have had millions of views on social media, and while it’s good that for once the thing everyone is talking about is actually important, they’re really pretty upsetting. (In one particularly painful clip, a boy describes trying not to eat a lot in one day, even though he’s hungry all the time.) Our Britain Editor Anoosh explained why the programme was a landmark moment in social affairs reporting here.

Everybody should be talking about…

What happens after the election if (I’m sorry, I didn’t want to be the first to write this down) Labour loses. An underrated factor in determining the party’s future is what happens in the trade union movement.

And this afternoon, Patrick noted that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey was hinting that he, too, might be on the way out. Read more here.


Yesterday I wrote that actor Hugh Grant had been spotted campaigning for the Lib Dems. That wasn’t quite true, sorry – he’s actually advocating anti-Tory tactical voting, and has also been campaigning for Labour in other places. My apologies for misrepresenting Grant’s position.

Thanks to Nicky Woolf, for helping me Trump up the volume at the top of today’s email.