Mrs May goes to Washington - but what will she bring back?

EDITOR'S BLOG: The PM will be the first world leader to meet President Trump, but striking a sound trade deal will take many moons.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 23 Jan 2017

So Theresa May will be the first foreign leader to approach the gold throne of the new US leader in the White House. The bust of Churchill is back in its rightful place in The Oval Office. Being first in is being trumpeted as a good thing - first in line, must mean he thinks we’re special etc etc. Which in a way it, of course, is but there will be many leaders who are glad it isn’t them going first into the ring with such an unpredictable and trigger-happy opponent. There is plenty to lose.

It’s been argued that hers is the most sensitive and tricky bit of persuasion needed since Churchill met FDR in order to talk him into taking up arms against the Germans. But she is arguing in favour of more globalisation via the UK becoming a leader in free trade, whereas Trump wants to put up protectionist barriers to protect his hordes of ‘left behinds.’

It’s impossible to know what Trump really thinks about the British. Are we really his style? Nobody bar Nigel Farage over here has a good word to say about him. With a Scottish mother he could be as unenthusiastic about the English as many are North of the border. His feelings, as with most things that fizz and pop around inside that orange head of his, apparently change from moment to moment depending on where he thinks he can get some swift-footed advantage.

But if May thinks that we are going to be awarded with a super-beneficial trade deal tout de suite, then she has another think coming. With all his talk of America First, the agri-business, IT, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and financial services sectors with their powerful lobbying machines will be looking for sweet deals from his White House that favour home-based businesses rather than those abroad. Don’t forget he has widespread ‘carnage’ to heal.

And May is playing a pretty weak hand. She isn’t acting as a go-between, an honest broker between Europe and the States. She isn’t trusted by either side to fulfill that role. We’re currently sui generis, out in no man’s land. When May says that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ for the post-Brexit UK she is wrong. She has to get some sort of deal - to leave the EU without one would be disaster as we then scrabble with the legalistic nightmare of trying to come to terms with all the members of the WTO, one by one.

If you could bear to listen to Trump’s short inauguration speech you would have heard that it’s all about protection and buy American, not helping out the other half of a once-special relationship that is coming cap in hand because it’s fallen out so badly with its European allies.

Trump has called Brexit ‘a great thing.’ I doubt very much if Theresa May would describe it thus. It’s more of a barely-endurable pain in the neck for her - something that she was on balance mildly against in theory and will find near impossible to enact in reality. She will be remembered for nothing else once she is gone. All her sterling, deeply conservative Home Office efforts will be lost in the vast sands of time.

It suits Trump that Europe might fragment. One of the reasons it was set up in the first place was as a useful and necessary alternative to being caught up in the vicious binary conflict between the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union. (There are many who still prefer the European system, however currently lame and stumbling, to those offered by either America or the Russians, especially as both have veered towards their own extremes.)

Trump might not wish to intervene in the affairs of other nations because of the dollars this costs. But that doesn't mean he does not wish the US to reassert itself as the undisputed top dog. He wants America to be not just ‘great’ again, but ‘The Greatest.’ And, in the meantime, senior Chinese diplomats are apparently saying things like ‘China will assume world leadership if needed’ which is truly chilling. I daresay they’d try to persuade us to use their own Beijing- approved internet search engines in the process.

Finally, I know every left of centre intellectual has weighed in with his or her take-down of Trump over the last year. But, as a reminder of what Theresa May will find on Friday, why should we deny the chance of Phillip Roth to get onto our website:

‘I was born in 1933, the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.’

Theresa May had better hope that eight of those seventy-seven words are ‘sure - you can have a Brexit trade deal’.

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