John Bercow, the former speaker, is not everyone’s favourite politician, but he was absolutely right when he appeared on Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday (5 June) and called Donald Trump “the most rancid, racist and repellent occupant of the White House in my lifetime”. For once, he added, the British government should cast diplomacy aside and “call Trump out, tell it like it is, say his behaviour is a disgrace and unconscionable”.
If only Boris Johnson still had the guts to do so. He did when he was mayor of London back in 2015. On that occasion he accused Trump of a “quite stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States” after the then presidential candidate demanded a ban on Muslim immigration to the US.
But now? Quick to condemn the “thuggery” of British protesters on Sunday, our craven Prime Minister has been shamefully silent about Trump’s. He has uttered not a critical word as the president has preached hatred and stoked division following George Floyd’s brutal killing by police officers. He has pronounced not a censorious syllable as Trump has threatened to unleash America’s military on its own people, deployed security forces against US citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest, ordered state governors to “dominate the streets” with force, used riot police and tear gas to facilitate the crassest of photo opportunities outside a church, and made national guard helicopters intimidate those he labelled “terrorists”.
Johnson said nothing about the shocking events in the US when he spoke to Trump by telephone four days after Floyd’s death. He said nothing during Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday until Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, prompted him – at that point he merely condemned the killing and supported the right to protest, provided it was peaceful.
He twice ducked the question when Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, asked what representations he had made to “his friend Trump”. The government was still selling riot gear and tear gas to the US, Blackford noted. Instead of championing human rights it “has shuttered itself in the hope that no one would notice”.
At that evening’s Downing Street briefing Johnson was given yet another chance to show some backbone when Beth Rigby of Sky News asked: “Protesters don’t have a chance to speak to the President of the United States. You do. What’s your message to President Trump on their behalf?” Again our Churchillian leader obfuscated.
We now know, courtesy of the Sunday Times, that Johnson has been playing tennis at the US ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park while thousands of his irate compatriots have been demonstrating outside Downing Street.
It would be nice to think that, for once in his life, Johnson might show some moral courage, do the right thing, and show that the UK can still stand up for decency, compassion and democratic freedoms in a world where those commodities are being brushed aside by populists and demagogues.
How exhilarating it would be were he to emulate Hugh Grant’s prime minister in Love Actually and declare: “We may be a small country, but we’re a great one too” and stand up to the bully across the Atlantic.
Of course British prime ministers do not interfere in the affairs of other sovereign states in normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances. Trump’s conduct is profoundly dangerous not just to the stability of the US, but to that of the world. And it is not as if the president has refrained from interfering in British politics.
He backed Brexit, endorsed Johnson in the Tory leadership contest and general election, rubbished Jeremy Corbyn and ridiculed Theresa May’s negotiating policy. He forced Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador to the US, from his post and sought to have him replaced by Nigel Farage. He called Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, a “stone cold loser”.
Indeed, Johnson’s refusal to criticise Trump is a rare example of him failing to seize an opportunity to grab headlines and boost his approval ratings. He has also missed a golden chance to divert attention from his government’s lamentable response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the reason is painfully apparent.
Having severed its ties with the EU, and having cast itself adrift in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, the UK desperately needs to hitch itself to the US. Having willfully decided to leave the biggest free-trade area in human history, it urgently needs a trade agreement with America. It dreams deludedly of replacing Brussels with a revamped “Anglosphere”.
So much for “taking back control”. Those imperatives mean “Global Britain” must “bend the knee” not in tribute to George Floyd, but in fealty to Trump. They are the reason that Johnson invited the US’s unspeakable president on that excruciating state visit to Britain last year. They explain why Trump was the first person Johnson called after being discharged from hospital in April, and why he was so eager to attend Trump’s self-promoting G7 summit in Washington this month, which was cancelled after German chancellor Angela Merkel had the good sense to reject the invitation.
The UK may yet pay a heavy price for its grovelling support of a deranged president. As things stand, Joe Biden could well defeat Trump in the presidential election this November. If that happens, Democrats, and the many millions of Americans who have spent the past four years resisting a president who has subverted the values that made their country great, will not forget Johnson’s “special relationship” with Trump – his connivance in his wickedness. Nor should they.