Banning Trump: May Exposes the Weakness of Brexit Britain

It is one of the cliches of political life, the old Chinese proverb that it is a curse to live in interesting times.

It is a dictum to which Theresa May might pay some attention, even as she savours opinions polls and her convincing win in the House of Commons over Article 50.

The EU referendum result has changed Britain’s long-standing trade and security policies; it has also given bloom to a change in its democratic make up. One only has to observe the Commons Brexit debate to acknowledge this.

Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett may have been more explicit than many when she declared that she believed Brexit would be a disaster before she cast her vote to start exit negotiations. But she was not alone.

The Burkean idea of representative democracy where MPs exercise their judgement, now seems antiquated. A toothless, undemocratic second chamber will debate May’s bill but is under great pressure to pass it without amendments. How this will play out remain to be seen.

At times the EU debate has seemed to lack rationalism. Yet politics has ever been thus. Emotion and appearance play a greater role in political decision-making than we care to admit.

How else can we explain the prime minister’s hegemony?

Since she became First Lord of the Treasury, Theresa May has displayed a workman-like approach. Of course, she has made errors but her much-mocked catchphrase - “Brexit means Brexit” - reassured agitated Leave fanatics that the Remainer prime minister would respect the referendum result. Those surprised by her “clean Brexit” speech at Lancaster House, had clearly not listened to the government’s previous utterances.

Optics matter.

May’s evasion on Trump’s ban contrasted with the confidence and condemnation of other nations

Her greatest strategic judgement has been her ill-advised rush to see President Trump.

The election of a new US president usually sees a desperate struggle among Western leaders as to who among them will be the first to meet the leader of the free world. Not so with Trump. Angela Merkel’s tempered welcome of the 45th president exemplified the caution.

May showed no such wariness. Like many British leaders before her, she not only buys into the myth of the special relationship but she sees a potential role for Britain as a “bridge” between the US and the European Union.

In this instance coyness might have been a better tactic. Britain can no longer claim to be that bridge because it is in the process of leaving the EU. Without firm allies on the other side of the English channel, it is left desperately looking for a friend in the US president.

Within hours of her meeting, Trump signed his executive order, banning entry to the US from seven Muslim countries and suspending the US’s refugee programme. Supposed triumph turned into disaster. That Trump had done so without consulting the visiting prime minister was humiliation enough; he also exposed May’s weakness.

May’s evasion on Trump’s ban contrasted with the confidence and condemnation of other nations such as Canada and Germany.

Even the 100% commitment on NATO she put into the president’s mouth - a promise about which she crowed the following week - soon proved worthless.

The anger of many was worsened by May’s invitation of a state visit and the idea that Trump would address both Houses of Parliament. Within hours of his chaotic travel ban, over a million people had signed a petition calling for the invitation to be withdrawn.

the state of things to come

Speaker Bercow has spoken out against Trump speaking in parliament. The petition against Trump’s visit will now be debated in the House of Commons.

Once a rare honour, in recent years leaders such as Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have addressed MPs and peers leading many to accuse opponents of Trump’s visit of hypocrisy. Yet the affront is greater when we fawn to a leader who betrays the values of decency and liberalism that modern democratic nations are supposed to hold dear.

The humiliation has already been met. The implication is clear: Britain needs to flatter the US President to secure a post-Brexit trade deal. This is the new reality of Britain’s position in the world, where it cosies up to leaders because it has turned its back on neighbours who would have allowed it to make a choice with a greater degree of dignity.

Desperation to show that leaving the EU would lead to a “Global Britain” pushed May into the arms of an untested leader and exposed the weakness of Brexit Britain.

The United States is not the only country with whom Britain will have to forge new trade deals to make up for loss of single market membership. Some of those nations - Brazil, Mexico, India - will look at Britain’s subservient posture and draw their own conclusions.

A rash visit across the Atlantic. A state visit that should never have been suggested. It is the state of things to come. And it stems from the decision to take back control.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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