So once again, a Republican President and a Conservative Prime Minister hold office at the same time. There are plenty of post-war precedents: Eisenhower and the Conservative Prime Ministers of the 1950s, Richard Nixon and Edward Heath, the older George Bush and John Major and, above all, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Democrat Presidents and Labour Prime Ministers also tended to overlap: Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
There were certainly periods when a Republican President and a Labour Prime Minister, or a Democrat President and a Conservative Prime Minister, were governing at the same time: Harold Macmillan, for example, tried to establish a working relationship with a President of a different generation – John F Kennedy. But for much of the post-1945 period America and Britain tended to move left or right at roughly the same time.
This pattern began to break down in the twenty-first century. 9/11 yoked Blair to an American President whose politics and attitudes were, in many respects, very unlike his: George Bush. But the two shared a belief in vigorous military intervention by the West abroad. This proved to be a wedge that drove the Republicans apart from the Conservatives. Indeed, Michael Howard’s post-invasion criticism of the Iraq adventure resulted in Bush refusing to meet with him.
By the time David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, the links between the two parties were rusting, and not simply because of Iraq, or even because the Party had been out of office for the best part of a decade. In very crude terms, the Cameroons wanted to move the Tories to nearer the centre, and saw the fervent politics of the Republicans as an albatross. They would have seen the scene in Love Actually in which a young, fresh-faced Prime Minister of a new government publicly tells a cynical, hard-edged President to get lost.
Barack Obama came along at exactly the right moment for Cameron. What drove the latter towards the former was not simply a prudent desire to get alongside “the leader of the free world”, let alone a conviction to stand by America for better or worse, but a sense that ease with its first black President would be a symbol of modernisation. Most Conservative MPs didn’t share Cameron’s view, but a substantial minority did. A Daily Telegraph survey found 63 of them rooting for John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election, but 28 of them backing Obama.
“The symbolism of Obama is huge,” Malcolm Rifkind declared. “The election of a black president would be such an enormous step forward for America’s national history, and politics, its culture.” David Willetts, Richard Bacon and, yes, Douglas Carswell also spoke favourably of the Democrat candidate. This would never have happened in the days of Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. “It was lonely being a Clintonista in the 1990s,” Simon Burns told the paper. “It is not lonely being a Democrat in the Tories today.”
By 2012, Obama was less in fashion among British Conservatives, but their relationship with the Republicans was none the less remote. Atlantic Bridge, set up in 1997 to help keep it in good order, closed in 2011 in the wake of criticism by the Charities Commission. Liam Fox had been the guiding spirit behind it. Rifkind himself had sat on the Board of Advisers, as had Boris Johnson. The group had kept alive contact with Bush’s White House; members were briefed there by Karl Rove, Bush’s adviser, in 2004.
Which brings us to Obama’s successor. The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives still don’t have much of a relationship with the Republicans, let alone with Donald Trump and his team – and that the latter’s sole political point of contact in the UK is UKIP, in the form of Nigel Farage. The former UKIP leader is certainly friendly with Trump, having spoken for him during the Presidential campaign. And the Trump campaign’s Chief Executive was Steve Bannon, who is also the CEO of Breitbart News.
But Trump’s transition team contains people who are scarcely strangers to senior Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox and Bernard Jenkin. Duncan Smith, who writes about Trump on this site today, and Fox know Rudy Giuliani, who was name-checked yesterday by the President-elect in his victory speech. Duncan Smith, Fox and Jenkin are also familiar with John Bolton, a former American Ambassador to the U.N under Bush, who may get a diplomatic post. As Tim Montgomerie pointed out yesterday, Fox’s internal position is now stronger.
Trump isn’t the Republican establishment and the Republican establishment isn’t Trump. But neither does the President-elect lead a team made up only of outsiders. He will have to choose, in forming his Cabinet and selecting his advisers, what balance to strike, and how many other senior Republicans gain important posts. Since some of them are bound to do so, the Conservatives will have growing points of contact with the new adminstration. George Osborne will have kept his Republican contacts alive, or will have tried to.
Work has already been under way for some time. Martin Callanan, Chris Heaton-Harris and Nigel Adams attended this year’s Republican convention. Mark Field, the Chairman of the Party’s International Office, is ensuring that CCHQ has strong links to the International Republican Institute and its President, Mark Green, a former Congressman. The two parties have been working together to help strengthen democracy abroad, the Conservatives in the Caribbean and the Republicans in West Africa. And both are members of the IDU.
As we said yesterday, there is an upside for the Government to Trump (having a pro-Brexit Government in the White House) as well as a serious downside (the possibility that his election may embolden Putin’s ambitions in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). We are no longer “in the back of the queue” for a trade deal – if indeed we were likely to be. Instead, the man who made the threat is leaving the White House. Trump’s election also makes it less likely than previously that MPs will seek to hold up Brexit.
Yes, there is a long list of derogatory quotes by Conservative MPs about the new President: this morning’s Times has some entertaining examples. Ronald Reagan made parts of the Party very nervous. But I can’t recall him being described as “odious” by a Foreign Office Minister or “worse than Goldwater” by a Cabinet member. There is also the obligatory bracing item from Boris Johnson. “The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump,” the man who is now Foreign Secretary said in his Mayoral days.
Theresa May has been more restrained (now, there’s a surprise). She has criticised the President-elect’s views on Muslims. But she stayed out of the contest, turning down a chance to meet Clinton in New York in September. And there are overlaps in the world views of May and Trump. Both have focused on voters who were hit by the crash and are being left behind by globalisation.
None the less, talk of her being a new Thatcher to his Reagan should be kept in context. The last two saw eye-to-eye on the threat of communism. But the President-elect’s perspective on Putin is different from the Prime Minister’s. Trump doesn’t seem to think about Europe much, and his interest in Britain to date has been largely confined to Scottish golf courses. And they are, well, very different people. I find it hard to imagine them hitting it off. Maybe he will gamble with the bold approach that gained so much publicity in the build-up to polling day.