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30 November 2017

What does Donald Trump’s Twitter attack mean for Theresa May?

In the long term, it has two consequences that really matter.

By Stephen Bush

One of the many scenes in Tim Shipman’s new book Fall Out (available today in all good bookshops) in which Theresa May and her chiefs-of-staff do not emerge from well concerns the election of Donald Trump. They bought that Trump would “evolve” in office and the PM duly shot halfway across the world to hold the president’s hand and offer him a full state visit.

The obvious truth is that Trump has shown no sign of “evolving” as far as his attitudes to minorities go, since he was sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination back in 1973. Retweeting a faked video by Britain First, a far right groupuscule last seen in politics getting 56 votes in the Rochester and Strood by-election, is shocking, but not surprising. It gives Trump’s sympathies to the furthest and unloveliest stretch of the right a local angle, that’s all.

But even May’s muted criticism of the move has drawn the ire of the president on Twitter, who lashed out at the PM’s account on only the second attempt at targeting the right Theresa May. (Perhaps he is evolving!)

In the short term, it’s a boost for an embattled Prime Minister to be attacked by a widely detested American president, though May missed a trick in not condemning Trump in the strongest terms.

In the long term, it has two consequences that really matter. The first is that it adds to the United Kingdom’s never-that-faraway anti-American feeling. Even should Trump be defeated in 2020, at the next election here, public opinion will be more receptive to the brew of anti-Washington politics that Jeremy Corbyn serves with ease, and that whoever he faces on the Tory side will struggle to match.

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The second, of course, is the added political difficulties of that mythical US-UK trade deal: at the US end, even May can’t bite her tongue hard enough to keep Trump on side. At the British end, the words “trade deal with Donald Trump” are a big enough reputational problem before you get to the question marks over food and animal safety that British farming will surely tap into in order to protect their industry. 

It’s a further validation of the criticism that all May’s visit to the White House got her was a problem with social liberals at home and nothing to show for it abroad.