The visa ban shows that Donald Trump will never be a reliable ally

No amount of gladhanding can make Donald Trump an ally of the United Kingdom.

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Good weekend? However bad it was, you can comfort yourself on one thing: the Prime Minister had a worse one.

The afterglow from a successful visit to the court of Donald Trump was blown away by the President’s executive order banning anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries – Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen – from coming to the United States.

To make matters worse, the executive order initially hit British citizens with either dual nationality or who were born in any of those seven nations, including Mo Farah, the Olympic athlete, and Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi.

The ban has been immediately condemned by leaders across the world , including a string of Conservative MPs. But the PM herself stayed silent for close to 24 hours, only belatedly condemning the ban at past midnight on Saturday, and instructing the Foreign Office to make representations on behalf of Brits hit by the ban.

Now she is under pressure, not only from the opposition parties, but from within the Conservative tent, to either cancel Trump’s planned state visit or, at the absolute least, to not extend an invite to address both Houses of Parliament at Westminster. A petition calling for the visit to be scrapped has cleared the threshold to trigger a response from Parliament ten times over. “You are not welcome here Mr President” is the Mirror’s splash, while “Stop Trump state visit” is the Metro’s.

There’s a lot to go over so I will try to be brief. In terms of domestic politics, it’s striking that what little credit that is being given to the government even by its usual allies is accruing to Boris Johnson for securing the exemption for British citizens rather than the PM. “Boris keeps US open to Britons” is the Telegraph’s splash while “BoJo in US win for Mo” is the Sun’s page one lead. And in terms of the place where elections are won and lost – those brief seconds of news on music radio – it is May who was refusing to comment last night but Boris Johnson who is taking action today.

Johnson hasn’t forgotten where the goal is as far as an opportunity to seize the agenda – only seconds after Downing Street had ended its ban on commenting on the row he had sent a tweet condemning Trump’s executive order – is concerned. It should surprise no-one that the reality is that the concession the Foreign Secretary is trumpeting doesn’t appear to be worth the paper it’s printed on. He hasn’t forgotten to do that, either. 

Away from Westminster, the ban should give pause to anyone who still believes that “moderate” Republican politicians in Congress are going to restrain Trump. Just one sitting Republican Congressman, and only two Senators, have outright condemned the ban. Through a combination of primary defeat and fear of primary defeat, the moderate Republican is either extinct or cowed. There is not going to be any brake on Trump from that corner.

It also shows the influence of the white nationalist Steve Bannon, former chief of alt-right website Breitbart turned chief strategist to Donald Trump. This was an executive order with Bannon’s fingerprints all over it – and in the same weekend that he has been appointed to the new President’s national security council, too

Watch out, too, for what happens to the attempt to overturn the ban in court. There’s a fairly open-and-shut case that it violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause that the American government may not discriminate on the basis of religion. The American Supreme Court has been a partisan body for much of its life, and we’re about to find out at least one of two things. The first is just how partisan, and the second may be what Trump will do when a court case doesn’t go his way.

On Downing Street’s part there is no intention of axing the visit. Trump is still the president, they argue, and politics is the art of the possible.

And they’ve got a point. The Queen has played host to some pretty grisly characters over the years. We’ve rolled out the red carpet for Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu so that Jim Callaghan's government could sell him trains. David Cameron gave Chinese leader Xi Jinping the full gold coach treatment in order to smooth the path of Chinese investment in the United Kingdom. Just because it should now be clear to everyone what Trump is doesn’t change the office he holds and the terrifying power he wields.

There’s also a degree to which the ban and its fallout provides a grisly proof of concept that there is a prize to be won by hugging Trump close: after all, Boris Johnson was able to get “our people” exempted from the ban. And if that costs a piece of our soul, so be it. At least that’s the argument you’ll hear being made in diplomatic circles

But the United Kingdom’s realpolitik approach doesn’t seem to extend to other powerful nations. We’re still carrying on at Russia as if the United States is going to have our back. (Also this weekend in Trumpland: a friendly phone call to that man Vladimir Putin, in case anyone still thought a spot of handholding was going to flip Trump on that issue.) We’re actually ratcheting up our language and tone towards China.

There’s a danger that Downing Street believes that rhetorical self-abasement towards the new President is the same as adjusting our sails towards changed times in any way, shape or form. We still have a Russia policy based on the United States having our back against Putin. We have a China policy that is not fit for purpose in the event of a trade war between Washington and Beijing. Far from realistically adjusting to the victory of Donald Trump, we seem to believe that acting as if Hillary Clinton won the presidential election will make Trump act like her.

It’s not alarming that our government is continuing to host dangerous men that don’t share our values to keep the peace, as we’ve done throughout our history. It is alarming that the government don’t seem to have noticed that description applies to Donald Trump.

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.

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