The circumstances surrounding the bilateral US-UK talks between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson yesterday were mutually suboptimal. On the face of it.
In the city that never sleeps, Johnson would have been forgiven for having a restless night. Surrounded by the skyscrapers of New York, the Prime Minister awoke to the news that the Supreme Court had ruled that his decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. Not good.
Donald Trump ended the day staring down the barrel of an impeachment inquiry. Only 13 months away from an election, the President is at war with Congress after Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, finally caved to pressure and announced that Trump would become only the fourth president to face an impeachment inquiry. It is a gift to the Democratic base, whose calls for impeachment have grown loud enough such that Pelosi could ignore them no longer. Also, not good.
But look deeper and we see two self-styled ‘strongmen’ fighting for their political lives. Backs against the wall, their current predicaments allow both to enter an election pitting themselves against their political enemies, “the establishment”, and anyone seeking to slow down or frustrate their agenda.
In the case of the President, you only need to look as far as his Twitter response pitting all of his opponents in one bracket. Come November 2020, he and his increasingly effective digital team will double down on the notion that it is Donald ‘America First’ Trump against the world. It is a turnout strategy aimed a motivating Republican voters to donate and then show up in their droves From this point onwards, the MAGA fanbase will be excited and enthused like never before.
You get the feeling this – impeachment – is a fight the president is desperate to have. That is perhaps where the similarities with the Prime Minister’s position ends. One school of thought suggests Downing Street’s strategy has been to engineer a ‘people vs parliament’ election all along. Perfectly viable, but in reality how many strategists or campaign consultants had priced in a spectacularly public telling off by the highest court in the land leading to the reversal of prorogation which leaves Tory conference under threat?
For Trump, his strategy must tread a careful balance between exploiting the impeachment inquiry for political benefit amongst his base while not becoming defined by it. Practically, even if the House inquiry ends with Articles of Impeachment and a majority vote in the chamber, which is viable despite currently being around 50 votes short of the 218 required to proceed, it is almost impossible to believe that Senate Republicans will vote by a two thirds majority to remove the President from office.
Herein lies a crucial difference between Washington and Westminster. Whilst the President has retained the vast majority of his party’s support in both chambers, the prime minister has suffered from resignations and a decline in party political goodwill having removed the whip from 21 Conservative dissenters in the Commons. Trump can call on party loyalty that Johnson could only dream of.
For the Prime Minister, it is less clear how yesterday’s events can be spun into a positive. With no immediate election in sight, the ‘people vs parliament’ narrative lacks substance and looks too much like defiance in the face of judicial independence.
Both men will be hoping they don’t become resigned to the unwanted pages of political history. No president has been removed from office owing to impeachment (note Richard Nixon resigned rather than having to face the prospect). Trump will not want to become the first.
Meanwhile the shortest prime ministerial term in the UK is held by George Canning, who only lasted 118 days. Johnson will need to remain in post until November 20 to avoid surpassing that record. Conversely, it might be that we look back on successful re-elections for Trump, and a Conservative majority won by Johnson, and ask ourselves: ‘Is this what they both wanted all along?’