When the six-week Conservative leadership election began, it looked as if Nigel Farage would be the spectre hanging over it, as the candidates tried to reassure Tory members they would see off the threat from his Brexit Party. As the contest draws to a close, there is a new menace: Donald Trump.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt won headlines after criticising the US president for suggesting that four congresswomen of colour should “go back” to the nations “from which they came”. But it was hardly the Love Actually moment the headlines implied. Johnson and Hunt (as well as Theresa May, at least so far) stopped short of calling Trump out for racism, as the House of Representatives has now done.
The unwritten rules of diplomacy seem to allow Tory politicians to criticise Trump but not accuse him of racism, as that might damage UK interests in the long run if the president retaliated. So that’s alright, then. But why do diplomatic niceties make racism acceptable?
I’m told Boris only went as far as he did following a backlash from mainstream Tory MPs who are backing him for the leadership. Some were appalled by his refusal to fully support Sir Kim Darroch against Trump’s Twitter attack over the leaked diplomatic cables which cost him his job as UK ambassador in Washington. “Boris’s response was appalling, indefensible,” one senior Tory MP and supporter told me.
Even some Boris advisers admitted privately the Darroch affair had damaged him. His feeble response sparked a debate among some Tory moderates about whether their strategy of hugging him close in order to influence him is working. It’s a bit late for a rethink now.
The doubts have been reinforced by Johnson’s decision to rule out any changes to the Irish backstop and demand its removal from the withdrawal agreement. They rightly fear that this has made a no-deal Brexit more likely.
Boris admitted later that he could have been more fulsome in his defence of Darroch, telling a Tory hustings: “I probably should have been more emphatic that Kim personally had my full support.” But the damage had already been done; by then, Darroch had resigned.
It doesn’t bode well for a Johnson government, especially as Trump is clearly now in election mode ahead of next year’s presidential contest.
Boris hopes to put pressure on the EU by securing some quick wins en route to a UK-US trade deal. This will not be easy as he thinks. Trump sees such agreements as a means of putting “America first”, not something of mutual benefit. Johnson’s pledges to safeguard food hygiene and animal welfare standards and protect the NHS from US health giants will not go down well with Trump.
No doubt the president will give Boris a warm embrace when they meet, possibly at a G7 summit in Biarritz in August or at the time of the UN general assembly in September. They will play the stuck record about the “special relationship” – even though it is so patently one-sided with Trump in the White House.
The president will doubtless demand something in return for talking up a trade agreement. Although Johnson backed this week’s efforts by the UK, France and Germany to keep the ailing Iran nuclear deal alive, some Whitehall officials fear he will come under pressure to change UK policy. Trump would dearly love to split the UK off from the rest of Europe. But such a provocative move would shrink even further the chances of a negotiated exit from the EU.
With no deal in the frame, a general election could come sooner rather than later. Team Boris are convinced their man can beat Jeremy Corbyn. Although not a big factor, they suspect a subsidiary one would be Corbyn’s long-standing anti-Americanism worrying some voters. Yet Johnson should beware: the public won’t like a craven PM who bends the knee to Trump.
Unlike the Tories, the Labour leader had no doubts about what he has witnessed in Trump, tweeting: “Telling four congresswomen of colour to ‘go back’ is racist.” (As it happens, Corbyn is an admirer of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the congresswomen, and the feeling is mutual.)
As May prepares to leave the stage, it is David Cameron’s memoirs I am looking forward to this autumn. Hopefully he will admit it was a mistake not to delay the EU referendum until 2017. He didn’t need to rush it; the legislation he pushed through parliament allowed him to wait. By 2017, Trump was installed in the White House and the public might just have seen our safer, more reliable European partners in a different light. Yet another new fact since 2016, to add to the lengthening list which now justifies a Final Say referendum.