Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
To Watford, where the eyes of the world have descended on the NATO summit. Boris Johnson today hosts a summit of some of the world’s most powerful leaders at a time when the very institution itself is under increasing pressure from within.
Ostensibly a collection of global minds discussing truly worldwide issues, it is difficult to look at the summit through anything beyond the prism of two elections.
The ‘Trump effect’ on 12 December
President Trump is, according to domestic opinion polls, unpopular with swathes of the British electorate. Just 18% of Brits have a popular opinion of the President according to YouGov, but despite that he is described as being “confident” and “anti-establishment”.
Just 10% of over 3,000 Britons polled thought getting the President’s endorsement would be helpful for British politicians. Conversely, a majority (54%) thought it unhelpful. On that precise basis, Downing Street and CCHQ might have been nervous about the timing of the President’s visit coinciding so closely with polling day next week.
The visit has the potential to be an electoral gift to an increasingly desperate Labour Party. Southside ‘insiders’ briefed the BBC that the publication of YouGov’s P analysis, which forecast a handsome Tory majority, had prompted a strategic rethink for the Labour campaign.
High profile Shadow Cabinet members who backed Leave would be deployed to Leave-voting areas in an attempt to arrest the slide of Labour voters backing Johnson to “Get Brexit Done” – it was the kind of strikingly obvious tactic that made you countenance for the thousandth time how this Labour leadership could possibly be trusted to organise a two-ticket raffle, let alone run their own election campaign or manage the country’s finances.
The NHS was nevertheless set to remain a core theme of Labour’s campaign around the UK. Chants of “Not for sale” have met Jeremy Corbyn wherever he goes around the country, as he attempts to ram down the throats of the British public the suggestion that our healthcare system would be on the table in a future US-UK trade negotiation.
Ironically, given Corbyn’s open contempt for Trump, it is the closest British replication of the President’s “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!” chants that have become part and parcel of his own speeches and rallies.
Over to you, President
Trump has so far given Downing Street scant cause for concern. Asked about the NHS, he was unequivocal when he said: “If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we wouldn’t want it. We want nothing to do with it.” The rebuttal was needed after Corbyn claimed 451 unredacted pages outlining talks between the UK and USA’s negotiating teams suggested the heath service would in fact be on the table.
There is nothing to suggest that a simple and clear dismissal of Corbyn’s allegations will make the matter go away. At this Friday’s head-to-head leaders’ debate, protecting the NHS will be to Corbyn what delivering Brexit is to Johnson.
Both men will seek to pivot to their home territory and strongest message. But therein the difference ends. Playing defence on the NHS, Johnson has a clear answer – it’s not for sale, and will be boosted with tens of thousands of nurses and record levels of investment.
When Johnson puts Corbyn on the back foot on Brexit, the Labour leader has no such retort – renegotiating the softest possible Brexit and putting it to a referendum in which the prospective Prime Minister would remain, neutral lacks the kind of clarity that voters seem desperate for. With no realistic plan for the biggest political priority facing the country, it is little wonder only 22% of voters think Labour are prepared for government.
Back to Washington with familiar headaches
Having stayed largely true so far to his claim that he has no interest in interfering in the UK election, the President is unquestionably using his NATO visit to bolster his own electoral prospects. A common misconception of the President’s ‘America First’ international agenda is that it revolves simply around the US as a unilateral actor outside of global institutions.
In some cases – namely the World Trade Organisation, where the US threatens to collapse the system if it does not send judges to the Appellate Body – it is true that this President uses vast American influence to rewrite the terms of agreement in the USA’s favour. In the case of NATO, the President is using this trip to project America as a defender of the organisation.
In a televised bilateral, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Your leadership on defence spending is having a real impact”, and credited the President with driving an extra $400bn towards defence by 2024. Those messages will resonate deeply with the President’s base, 65% of whom thought the military should be a top priority for the President at the start of his third year in office (Pew). Leaked footage of world leaders gossiping about the President further bolsters the siege mentality that the White House likes to deploy.
On his flight back to Washington, the President’s Twitter feed will return to a more routine flow of anti-impeachment diatribes as Trump faces the political fight of his life. House Democrats have now published a draft report as part of the impeachment proceedings that will serve as an outline for the articles of impeachment that the House could vote on as early as mid-December.
While looking further ahead to November 2020, Senator Kamala Harris announced she had dropped out of the Presidential race. “Too bad. We will miss you Kamala!” the President Tweeted. “Don’t worry, President. I’ll see you at your trial.” the senator responded.
For Downing Street, a successful visit by Trump will be one that causes as few political headlines as possible. Then, if he is returned to Government, Johnson will pivot back to making the Special Relationship great again. For the next eight days, some healthy distance between the President and Prime Minister appears well advised.