Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman, a British political magazine.
Before Donald Trump’s arrival in London on Saturday, Brits on social media began sharing clips of the 2003 Christmas romantic comedy, Love Actually. In the film, the British Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant, stands up to the U.S. President, saying: “I fear this has become a bad relationship, a relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants.” To many, this seemed like an accurate representation of what should happen during the recent visit of U.S. President Donald Trump. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered on the streets of London. The Lord Mayor of Sheffield banned Mr. Trump from the northern city and dubbed him “a wasteman.”
In the real 10 Downing Street, though, the script was humiliatingly downbeat. Ms. May donned a gown and joined the U.S. President for dinner. The evening’s entertainment included digesting the revelation that Mr. Trump had publicly insulted her in an interview with tabloid newspaper The Sun, and talked up her blond-haired rival, Boris Johnson, as a future prime minister. Yet the ill-mannered guest still got to meet the Queen and attend a joint news conference with the Prime Minister, where he patronized his host in front of the world’s media.
Unlike her fictional counterpart, Ms. May had little option other than to be diplomatic. She became leader shortly after the Brexit vote of 2016 and has staked her premiership on taking Britain out of the European Union. According to the most recent version of this plan, published by the government this week, this also means leaving the EU’s single market and customs union. It is not yet clear what will replace them.
To make matters worse, Ms. May is threatened by the fantasies of the Euroskeptics in her own party. In the days leading up to Mr. Trump’s arrival, several government ministers, including Mr. Johnson, resigned over the Brexit plan, which proposed sharing a common rulebook with the EU; Mr. Johnson likened the plan to “polishing a turd.” These Brexiters argue that, rather than compromising with the EU, Britain should strike new trade deals with the rest of the world, particularly the “Anglosphere” (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and Commonwealth giants such as India.
More sober members of the government note the Canada-EU trade deal has taken years to complete, a similar U.S.-EU deal seems all but dead and Mr. Trump is more interested in raising tariffs than reducing them. Yet, Brexiters still hold out hope for a Britain-U.S. trade deal. This impression has been encouraged by Mr. Trump, who promised a “very big and exciting” such deal a year ago, and has flattered not just Mr. Johnson but International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.
Such a trade deal may prove as elusive as sightings of first lady Melania Trump at the White House. In his bombshell Sun interview, Mr. Trump claimed that it was probably not going to happen after all. Hours later he reversed again, saying it was “possible” and branding The Sun interview “fake news.” Yet for Ms. May, so long as there is a chance of a deal, she cannot turn her back. This is not only because of the need to humor the Brexiters. According to a February YouGov poll, the majority of the British public loathes the U.S. President, but a significant proportion still believes the British government should try to work with him.
Britain could certainly do with an ally. Before government ministers started resigning, the biggest story in the news was the death of a woman by Novichok, the same poison that nearly killed the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this year. Britain, which has accused Russia of being responsible, pointedly did not send its representatives to the FIFA World Cup in Russia, but few other countries followed suit. In Europe, Brexit has divided Britain from the liberals such as Emmanuel Macron, while populists in Hungary, Italy and Poland are too right wing for British tastes.
And so Ms. May cannot afford to indulge in drama, either politically or financially. She must hold the sticky paw of the man who was rude to her in national print. She must dispatch a hapless spokesman to claim the visit is “a success.” And she must also hope he is right. For all her self-control, the PM made a hasty decision in March, 2017, to trigger Article 50, the clause that officially sets Britain’s departure from the EU in motion over a set period of two years.
With eight months to go until the deadline, Britain looks divided and alone. “A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend,” declares the Prime Minister in Love Actually, but Ms. May does not have many to choose from.