Foreign Affairs & Security
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
I spent the last month in the United States, watching what is at least the greatest show in democracy: the inauguration of the American President.
This show was bigger and greater than many of those that went before, not just because it featured the Donald, but because even on January 20th there was still palpable surprise and shock that the establishment's favoured candidate wasn't going to be President.
Left-wing protesters knelt in the street at the moment of the oath of office and screamed at a result all of us had known was a formality for at least two months. So desperate were they to suspend reality many had seemingly bought into the idea, as with Brexit in the UK, that it wouldn't really happen.
In UK political circles, the preparation for the possibility of Trump's victory hasn't been much more effective. It was only this time last that year that then Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the whole country being "united against him", and Boris Johnson described him as "out of his mind" adding "I wouldn't go to New York for fear of running into him". A few weeks ago he travelled to New York with the aim of meeting with the President elect firmly in his mind, and of course last week Theresa May invited Trump on a State Visit to the UK.
The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are executing their diplomatic duties in performing a somewhat clumsy a volte-face in their attitudes towards Donald Trump, and whilst Boris Johnson was not well received by Trump's team (Boris takes some time to translate) , that same team has been impressed by Theresa May's personal seriousness and commitment to renewing the special relationship.
The reaction to Trump's immigration restrictions have however demonstrated that May and Johnson don't have the belief and resolve to stand side by side with Trump and replicate the Reagan-Thatcher relationship they now claim to be aiming for.
The special relationship has been many things throughout our shared history, from an alliance that defeated fascism and communism to nothing more than a glib aside at a state dinner. Both George H.W Bush and Barack Obama spoke of it loosely, but described Germany as America's closest ally.
Under Obama the special relationship fell to a low ebb, Obama sought to re-position America in the world away from old allies, snubs came in the form of the removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, decreasing cooperation, and of course a lecture on how we should all vote in the EU referendum.
There has always been an element of the Labour Party that has viewed the United States with suspicion (never more true than under Comrade Corbyn), therefore a neat party to party fit has never existed between Labour and the Democrats. The strongest political tie that binds is the connection between the Conservative Party and the Republicans, it is when that relationship is in full bloom that the special relationship is at its strongest, but sewing those seeds takes time.
Unfortunately in fawning at Obama's feet Cameron left no room for that groundwork, as he pushed the Conservative Party ever closer to the Democrats. If the special relationship was at a low mark during the Obama Presidency, relations between the Conservatives and GOP fell even lower.
It was allowed to decline because those in the Conservative leadership found the conservative views held by Republicans objectionable (many still do privately), and the governing consensus was that it would be a very long time before the Republicans returned to power.
A BBC journalist called me a week before the US election, and barely masking his laughter down the phone said "I understand the Bow Group is supportive of Donald Trump?". I responded that the Bow Group supports conservatism where it can find it, and it certainly won't find any anywhere near Hilary Clinton. I then asked him why the BBC's coverage of the US election had been so biased against Trump, to which he explained "Because we can't find anyone that supports him." I suspect little effort was made to do so outside of the London bubble, and that this also explains why the vast majority of politicians have been left so unprepared.
Of course now Trump is President there is no shortage of fair-weather friends, disappearing when times are hard and reappearing when there's something to gain, but there is a limit to that which UK politicians who backed remain and would have most likely voted for Hilary Clinton can achieve working with Republicans, whose movement values ideological purity above all else. It is curious that politicians seem to think they can say one thing in America and one in Britain, and the two will never meet. In May's speech to Republican members of Congress she described her principles as being aligned with theirs, it is clear from her record and theirs that this is not so, and it will not have escaped them.
Nigel Farage has been a great beneficiary of the Conservative's recent neglect of the Republicans, and he remains Trump's most prominent ambassador in the UK. I spent some time with him in Washington, and his praise is sung from every corner in Republican quarters. The reason why Farage works so well in Republican circles is he talks their language, and its not a language one can pick up in the space of a trans-Atlantic flight, its an ideology, a way of seeing the world.
Mr Farage is however no where near government in the UK, and whilst he will do brand Britain plenty of good in Washington and brand Trump plenty of good in the UK, he unfortunately won't have a seat at the negotiation table. There are a handful of Conservative MPs and figures that have bent over backwards to maintain connections with Republicans over the past decade when it was unfashionable to do so, and these are the people who May needs to employ to rebuild the special relationship and secure a bilateral trade deal.
MPs like Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Sir Gerald Howarth and John Redwood never forgot that the Conservative sister party was the Republican Party, that's the Party Conservatives should have been rooting for all along, not gulping and reversing statements when they won. Liam Fox has a peerless Republican network in America, and as Secretary of State for International Trade is best placed to utilise it.
It is an incredible stroke of luck that we have a President who supported Brexit and wants to put Britain at the front of the queue for trade talks. To get the best deal and enshrine a truly special relationship, the UK government needs to make sure we are sending those to Washington who were popping champagne corks upon his election, rather than drowning their sorrows.