Offering Donald Trump a state visit makes no sense at all

The political price the government will pay easily outweighs the benefits.

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You better not scream, you better not shout: Donald Trump is coming to town! On 3 June, to be precise. The American President’s visit will last until 5 June. During that time, he will meet the Queen, as well as the Prime Minister.

What’s the point? There will be a lot of ink spilt about the enduring importance, or lack thereof, of the US-UK strategic partnership, the office of the Presidency, and Trump’s personal fitness to occupy it, the opportunities post-Brexit of a US-UK trade deal and so on, but ultimately the value of a state visit comes down to a simple equation: “What do you lose by having a state visit and what do you get from the country you are hosting as a result of doing it?”

And it’s difficult, to put it mildly, to see what the overall benefit of a state visit by Trump is from a British perspective.

The arena that matters as far as American trade deals are concerned is primarily the Senate, where they are the work of years. It is highly doubtful that a British government led by Jeremy Hunt, Esther McVey or Jeremy Corbyn will get a better deal from the United States because Theresa May had  Trump over for a visit. Trump himself is so unreliable that any personal relationship with him is not going to bear fruit: he tends to be swayed by whoever last spoke to him, and by definition that is not a quality that hugely advantages politicians who are quite literally an ocean away.

Then there’s the question of the political cost. One of the biggest mistakes that the Brexit elite has made is to elide support for Brexit (a political proposition capable of commanding majority support in 2016, and one that even if you cherrypick the polls is still backed by close to half the country) with the success of Donald Trump (a candidate who has never been able to command majority support in his own country, is wildly unpopular here, and who weakens Brexit just by association). The very worst thing that anyone who wants to build support for Brexit could do is equate it with Trump.

Then there’s the broader issue of Trump’s unpopularity in the UK. Conservative MPs will frequently roll their eyes in private that the state visit given to Xi Jinping, China’s head of state and a man whose government is incarcerating Uighyur Muslims and further rolling back political freedoms, triggered little in the way of popular protest; nor did the state visits handed to the ruling House of Saud, the Qatari government or other repressive regimes. They’ve got a point. But ultimately, while this is a useful talking point in a family row, it is besides the point: by inviting Donald Trump, the Conservative party is going to pay a political price with social liberals, ethnic minorities, the young and Remain voters – the four groups of voters that it did particularly poorly with in 2017, and who it needs to reclaim some lost ground with to be able to win large and enduring majorities. There is no equivalent price to be paid by inviting Xi. 

So why have the visit with Trump? The blunt answer is because, when Donald Trump was first elected, it seemed like a good idea in some corners of the Conservative government to offer him one. That decision has aged particularly badly but inertia is one of the strongest forces in politics. So here we are.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.