Trump in the UK: Can Britain cancel a state visit?

Because turning out the lights and pretending not be home is, sadly, not an option. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At the time of writing, the petition to refuse Donald Trump a state visit is at 1.78 million signatures. That’s 17 times over what is required for a petition to be debated in parliament. Despite this large virtual outrage, the UK government has come out firmly against the petition. “The United States is a close ally of the United Kingdom,” Theresa May said at a press conference with the Irish Taoiseach. “We work together across many areas of mutual interest and we have that special relationship between us,” she said. “I have issued that invitation for a state visit for President Trump to the United Kingdom and that invitation stands.”

Despite the fact that Parliament will now debate the state visit on the 20 February, her comments are no huge surprise. May has expressed no intention of rocking the Trump boat.

There seem to be three possible outcomes of this petition:

  1. The visit is cancelled - an unprecedented move
  2. The visit goes ahead with much outrage and protest
  3. The visit is delayed until a less politically sensitive time

The visit is cancelled - an unprecedented move

The key thing to remember here is the logistics of the state visit have yet to be decided. Technically, the invitation could simply be revoked. The likelihood of this is tiny. But in a world where Kanye West is friends with Donald Trump, who knows what could happen?  

“If there is a groundswell of political resistance, and if we continue to see the Crown push back against what they call the ‘premature invitation,’ then May might well have to venture into this uncharted territory,” explains Dr James Morrison, Assistant Professor of International Relations at LSE. “The rule book has essentially been thrown out [with Trump], especially in terms of diplomatic protocol.” A cancelled visit would be very surprising, but not unthinkable.

The implications for the relationship between the US and UK would be serious. For a man who is affronted by a tweet, a public rejection could be disastrous. “If he were to be disinvited, I can imagine him taking it very badly,” says Morrison. “It would significantly adjust the relationship.”

Level of possibility: 4

Level of PR shitstorm: 9

 

The visit goes ahead with much outrage and protest

Could a state visit be cancelled? Yes. Had it ever been or is it likely to be? No.

A Downing Street source told the BBC that cancelling the visit would  be a "populist gesture" and "undo everything" that May had achieved during her stateside visit last week. The visit is set for the summer, and it looks like it will go ahead, especially considering the news that Theresa May knew of Trump’s refugee ban before the visit.

It’s unlikely the anger towards Trump will settle down (is there a point at which racism and an impending dictatorship become less troubling?), meaning the visit would be met with more protests. By this point there’s bound to be a real proficiency to the sign-making.

Level of possibility: 7

Level of PR shitstorm: 8

 

The visit is delayed until a less politically sensitive time

Downing Street is still trying to keep up with the changes Trump is implementing. Earlier this week, conflicting statements were being pushed by Boris Johnson and the US embassy - a sign that the next six months could hold uncertainty. In light of this, it could be legitimate for the UK to suggest postponing the trip, in the hope of Trump's policies mellowing. Alternately, Trump’s office could asses the political atmosphere of his visit, and decide it would be in the US interest to postpone. However, for an egotistical megalomaniac, that seems unlikely.

Morrison agrees. “I think that the most likely outcome is that [the government] might well try to delay and play for time. Perhaps a year hence or more, the visit happens, which would be more conventional. At that point Trump might have settled into a more regular mode of administration.” There is an optimistic possibility too: “Or, if he continues like this perhaps he will be removed from power and impeached.”

Level of possibility: 5

Level of PR shitstorm: 6