- Theresa May set for a one-on-one meeting with Donald Trump.
- The prime minister seeks a closer relationship with the US as she heads towards Brexit.
- May has been criticised in the past for failing to stand up to the president.
- Polls suggest May is now deeply unpopular in Europe.
LONDON — As Britain crawls slowly towards Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May has cut an increasingly lonely figure on the world stage. Now isolated from her country’s largest trading partner in Europe, the prime minister has turned increasingly to the new US president Donald Trump as Britain’s best hope of remaining a major world player.
This relationship between the brash former reality TV star and the vicar’s daughter was always going to be an awkward one. Accused variously of sexism, racism, assaulting women and currently under investigation for his alleged ties to Russia, Trump is easily the most controversial politician on the world stage. By contrast, when May was asked during her recent failed election campaign what the “naughtiest” thing she had ever done was, the most she could come up with was having once run through a field of wheat.
This awkwardness was captured perfectly when the pictures of the two leaders holding hands on her first visit to the White House went around the world. The images have continued to dog her premiership as she has faced allegations of “cosying up” to Trump. As a result, the PM has repeatedly been forced to distance herself from some of Trump’s policies on refugees, immigration, trade and climate change.
Meanwhile, protests against Trump’s planned state visit to the UK have forced it to be put off indefinitely, while he continues with visits to Poland, France and elsewhere. Yet while May has distanced herself from the president on some issues, she still feels she has little choice post-Brexit to stay as close as possible to the US commander in chief.
The fragility of this relationship can be most clearly seen in the two leaders’ planned meeting this weekend at the G20 summit. Downing Street sources initially briefed earlier this week that May would focus her talks with the president on four key areas — cutting off terrorist financing, global migration, modern slavery and “making the global economy work for everyone”.
The list was notable for what it omitted — in particular, the key issue of climate change where Trump has already announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord which has been signed by almost 200 countries worldwide. The prime minister had previously refused to sign a joint letter from other G7 leaders condemning the decision.
When asked why May had failed to include it in her agenda for talks with Trump, her spokesperson belatedly insisted that she would make clear that Britain still remained committed to the Paris accord and pointed out that May had previously said she was “dissappointed” by Trump’s decision.
Throughout the early days of May’s relationship with Trump, it has been unclear what benefits she seeks to achieve from it. Earlier this year May told other world leaders that she wanted to be their “bridge” to the new US president. However, her offer to be a go-between with Trump was immediately rebuffed by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė who commented that: “I think there is no necessity of bridges. Today we are communicating with the United States mainly on Twitter.”
The value of May’s offer was further brought into question when the White House made clear that, despite previous suggestions from Trump and UK supporters of Brexit, Britain would, in fact, be left behind the EU when it came to settling any future trade deals.
May’s failure to win a majority in last month’s general election (a result Trump described as “surprising”) only further damaged her standing, with the PM now a regular target of mockery in the European press.
As a result, May has been caught in the awkward position of offering other leaders privileged access to a president that nobody has asked for and which it’s unclear she ever had in the first place.
This failure to forge a close relationship with Trump could well be to her benefit, however. Former prime minister Tony Blair’s loyalty to Trump’s predecessor but one, had him widely labelled as “Bush’s poodle” and was a significant contributing factor in the collapse of the former PM’s popularity.
Yet without that close and mutually beneficial relationship, May and by extension Britain, is increasingly left in a position of casting round for some other new purpose post-Brexit. Where she will find this new purpose remains unclear. Despite her claims to want to build a new “close relationship” with the EU, a poll this week of European countries found that May is now as unpopular among the public of former close allies such as Germany as President Putin.
Unpopular both at home and abroad and with little to show for her courtship of the president, the risk for May and for the country she leads, is not just becoming isolated on the world stage but becoming irrelevant on it altogether.