Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
As Donald Trump and Theresa May take part in the D-Day anniversary celebrations in Portsmouth, Westminster returns to the more rudimentary issues that now consume almost the entirety of our day-to-day politics. A Tory leadership contest entering overdrive as we approach the nomination deadline. A Labour Party mired in internal backbiting and ongoing procedural chaos. Resurgent Liberal Democrats on the lookout for a new leader of their own. And a crumbling Change UK whose five remaining MPs look set to be little more than a niche answer to a Westminster pub quiz in years to come.
For Downing Street, a successful State Visit that paves the way for Mrs May’s departure
After previous appearances next to the Prime Minister, Downing Street will have been kept awake at night worrying what President Trump might say this time. Will he throw his weight behind a No Deal exit, in order to kickstart US-UK trade talks? Will he fully endorse one of the candidates seeking to replace Theresa May, breaking the protocol of not interfering in domestic (let alone party) politics? Will a meeting with his old friend Nigel Farage dominate the entire visit? Those very real concerns will have been based on the President’s working visit to the UK in July 2018, when his arrival was pre-empted by a bombshell interview with The Sun.
On the basis of the above, nerves in Downing Street will have turned to relief as the President and his vast entourage left London for Portsmouth. The answer to those questions were all no. Instead, he seemed to be on his best diplomatic behaviour. Despite landing at Stansted while tweeting angrily about Sadiq Kahn, Trump stuck to diplomatic and royal protocol.
The closest he came to straying into domestic politics was when asked about the candidates seeking to replace May in Downing Street. On that basis, it was an especially good day for Boris Johnson – “I like him, I’ve liked him for a long time and think he’d do a very good job” – and Jeremy Hunt – “I know Jeremy, I think he’d do a very good job”. Perhaps less so for Michael Gove – “I don’t know Michael” – especially given the long interview between the two in January 2017.
For May, the press conference that wrapped up the London leg of the State Visit was filled with praise for her time in office and the progress she has attempted to make on Brexit. The President called her “probably a better negotiator than I am”, which is as close to high praise as possible for a man who prides himself on deal-making. Tacitly endorsing the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, Trump said the deal “was teed up” and “they have to do something”. Looking at May directly, he said “perhaps you won’t be given the credit you deserve, but I think you deserve a lot of credit”.
As the Prime Minister takes the first step towards her Downing Street departure on Friday, initiating the leadership contest to replace her, we do not expect any grand speeches to crown her legacy. If that is to be the case, then yesterday’s press conference in the grandeur of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be a fitting way to cap three years of hard work for Theresa May, regardless of whether you disagree with her intentions or outcomes.
The Special Relationship falls into the hands of Mrs May’s successor
On the day that the Special Relationship came under the spotlight of the British and American political press, those seeking to replace May were as quick to praise the Transatlantic alliance as they were to set down ground rules in any future US-UK FTA.
Matt Hancock said the NHS “isn’t on the table in trade talks and never will be”. A source close to Boris Johnson said, “If Boris Johnson is prime minister the NHS will never be on the negotiating table”. Dominic Raab said, “the NHS is not for sale to any country and never would be if I was prime minister.” Esther McVey said, “The NHS would not be on the table in any trade deal I negotiated with the US.” The comments all stemmed from an interview on the Andrew Marr show with Ambassador Woody Johnson, who said “the whole economy” would be on the table in future trade talks between the US and UK. That statement was reinforced by the President, but he walked it back in a subsequent interview with Piers Morgan. “I don’t see it being on the table,” he said.
The idea of the NHS being diminished by American healthcare providers was one of the death knells for the TTIP negotiations, and the above proves that the issue is emotive enough to push even the most free market Conservatives into taking a firm line. The comments make for good politics, given none of the aspirational 11 Tory MPs seeking to run the country would win on a pledge to open up the NHS to big pharma. But does it make for good future policy? Away from the Westminster bubble and in the real world, Washington will demand big concessions in future FTA talks, including in the most controversial and emotive topics of healthcare and food standards. Downing Street hopefuls may have to reconcile that fact soon.
The Special Relationship will remain just that – special
We would all do well to remember that the Special Relationship is an alliance that outlasts personalities, presidents and prime ministers. The current White House occupant is an avowed Anglophile and we should be relieved and excited that the world’s superpower continues to hold the UK in such high regard. That gives the next Prime Minister a platform on which to further build US-UK relations at a time when the UK must work even harder to reinforce its global alliances. In the shorter term, the 2019 State Visit was an initial fond farewell for May.