The Curious Irony of President May and Prime Minister Trump

The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election triggered the inevitable sneering from the Brits at the simply awful American political system and how it was inferior to our time-honoured mechanisms of parliamentary democracy and an unwritten constitution.

But the political events so far in 2017 should wipe the smirk off the face of anyone but the most hardened Conservative supporter in the UK.

To put it bluntly, the first few months of President Trump’s four-year term have been a pretty abject failure, as Disclaimer documented in its assessment of his first 100 days.

But the reason is not wholly his own ineptitude - although that has doubtless helped - but the ability of the American political system to apply the brakes to his out-of-control presidential vehicle.

It was the courts that twice blocked or delayed his Muslim ban. His plans to repeal and replace ObamaCare (The Affordable Care Act) that scraped through the Senate were put on hold in the House of Representatives after Republican moderates balked at provisions added to entice hard-line conservatives. In fact the administration also agreed to continue funding for a major component of ObamaCare as part of a deal to prevent a shutdown of the federal government.

Despite his efforts to circumvent the mainstream media and what he calls their “fake news” agenda, the newspapers and television news stations have succeeded in calling out the President over issues such as his sacking of FBI Director James Comey.

No political system is perfect but the British version is proving more imperfect than many

Contrast that with the UK where Theresa May has succeeded in driving through a one-woman agenda in face of sycophantic loyalty among Tory backbenchers and populist cheerleading from the popular press.

This is clearly a political strategy to promote the image of the PM over the unimpressive cadre of MPs in her cabinet (the same analysis can be applied to Labour, in fairness, but in reverse).

The party’s campaign bus has the slogan Theresa May: For Britain in giant letters, the PM’s signature, and the words ‘Strong, stable leadership in the national interest’ on its side. The word Conservatives appears only on the door in a tiny font.

In many constituencies election literature focuses on Theresa rather than the local candidate. Hilariously parliamentary candidates in marginal seats have started referring to themselves as “Theresa May’s local candidate”.

Claire-Louise Leyland, the Tory candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn who is hoping to overturn former Labour MP Tuliq Siddiq’s majority of 1,138, changed her Twitter profile to include the word @Conservatives after The Independent revealed she called herself “Theresa May’s Local Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn” but did not mention the party.

The courts have acted as a counterweight. But even when the judiciary was able to intervene, as it did by upholding Gina Miller’s court case against the UK government over its authority to implement Brexit without approval from parliament, MPs from both main parties rolled over and waved through Article 50.

The curious thing is that, unlike the case with the American election, no one voted for this. The British electorate voted in a Conservative government led by David Cameron in 2015. When Cameron fought for the UK to stay in the EU, backed by Theresa May, in 2016 he lost. When Cameron quit and his putative successors pulled out one by one, May was left as the last woman standing and moved into 10 Downing Street without even a vote of her own MPs or party members.

No political system is perfect but the British version is proving more imperfect than many. Its lack of checks and balances, safeguards and oversight has become apparent. In three weeks time May will be able to claim that personal endorsement she craves, in so small part due to an opposition party that actively seeks to avoid the mention of its leader.

Of course, that will mean there is even less chance of any review of our constitutional system as May will at last be able to point to an electoral mandate. Any form of proportional representation or reform of the House of Lords is out of the window. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the BBC film of the play King Charles III that showed what might happen if the head of state decides to intervene to block a blatantly undemocratic law being passed.

No wonder also that New Republic, a liberal US magazine, was able to carry a photo of the leaders of the US and the UK under the headline “Donald Trump looked even less presidential next to Theresa May”.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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