James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Given the appalling place she finds herself in, the Prime Minister has handled the last week extremely well. Theresa May went to Washington with two things in mind above all: firstly, to secure an in-principle agreement for a swift trade deal with the US; secondly, to secure a public commitment from Trump to the future of NATO. She came back with both. May also managed to avoid attacking the President personally at the time of her visit – which would have generated news in the US – while using the wider Government machine to emphasise policy disagreement to domestic audiences on her return.
It’s possible that she seemed a little too personally friendly with Trump (holding hands) but, to be fair, there’s a limit to what visiting politicians can demand from the White House in terms of pictures. It’s always the President’s show in his hometown. In any case, May did what she could to make last week about more than Trump: she made a high-profile speech to senior Republicans to show that Conservative links to the Republicans go beyond Trump, and then she stopped off in Turkey – to cement relations with one of the most powerful Muslim countries. It was nicely choreographed.
Just because the Prime Minister now finds herself in difficult waters doesn’t mean last week was mishandled at all. It simply reflects reality. May – and indeed Britain – need Trump, but he is an extremely unpredictable President whose policies are perfectly designed to irritate respectable opinion (not just left-wing opinion) across the world. Unlike senior Labour politicians that don’t need to think about life in power, the Prime Minister has actually got to make a relationship with him work. Unless we’re going to lead an aggressive diplomatic campaign against Trump, there’s obviously no alternative.
What should she do at this point? Normally my advice to politicians is to get out in front of any developing story to own it on your own terms. With this one, May would be better to see how things play out and respond accordingly. It would be a mistake to ally more closely with Trump – not least because it seems likely that his own position in the US will become more precarious as his moral authority, to the extent he has any, continues to slide away. But the importance of the US to Britain – immediately, in the past and in the future – means it would also be wrong to become some sort of public opponent to Trump. May should continue to make it clear what Britain’s public policies are on relevant issues and let them speak for themselves.
What about the state visit though? It would be better for everyone – including Trump – if it didn’t happen. It could make an appalling spectacle for all concerned. This is probably a conversation that needs to take place between political staff on either side of the Atlantic – people that can talk about the politics of such an event, rather than the diplomacy of it.