Even as he approaches the beginning of the end of his (first) term as President, Donald Trump has lost little of his ability to surprise, delight and provoke outrage. His state visit to the UK began with a protocol-busting attack on the Mayor of the city about to host him, but the remainder of his visit went smoothly. As the dust settles, it seems clear the Government will be both delighted and relieved that it passed off well.
A standout success of the visit was the visible awe and respect that the President exhibits to the Royal Family, and to Her Majesty The Queen in particular – hardly surprising since she has met so many of the White House’s previous incumbents and enjoyed a close friendship with Winston Churchill. The fact that Donald Trump’s Scottish-born mother taught her son to admire the Queen must also help.
Those who doubt the soft power value of the Monarchy should take note – their contribution is incalculable, and photographs of the President and the Queen will have been seen all around the United States, from Houston to Honolulu, reaffirming the close and enduring bonds between our countries to a new generation of United States citizens.
It can not be ignored that President Trump cuts a controversial dash. His brash and unvarnished style, whilst clearly appealing to many American voters, could not be more different to the cool and professorial style of Barack Obama. Theresa May unfairly endured brickbats from the British commentariat for being the first foreign leader to meet the President at the White House, and has faced criticism for inviting him on a state visit. Yet these critics fail to appreciate that a state visit would make the greatest impression on this particular President. Tailored diplomacy is always the most effective, and the FCO and Royal Household deserve congratulations.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable, together with their respective front benches, made a crass error in not attending the State Banquet on Monday evening. Though it may have played well with some of his supporters, the sight of the Leader of the Opposition giving a shouty speech at a rally attacking Her Majesty’s guest was unedifying, and came across as petulant when it emerged that Corbyn had unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Trump after all. It also risked being blind as to why the President has ostensibly visited at this moment – to commemorate the shared sacrifice of the D-Day landings, possibly the greatest affirmation of the United States’ commitment to freedom and European security.
The one truly sticky moment of the visit came at the President and Prime Minister’s joint press conference when, in the course of reiterating his enthusiasm for a US-UK trade deal, Trump suggested that the NHS would form part of the negotiations. The mere suggestion of this – which the Government soon squashed, as with trade deal countries can decide what is up for discussion, and what isn’t – ignites concerns across the political divide, and gave those hostile to Trump a new stick with which to beat him.
The President’s enthusiasm for a US-UK trade deal reawakens a key debate at the heart of the Brexit process. As Trump stated during his visit last year, in his customary style, such a trade deal will probably not be possible if the UK remains inside a customs union with the EU. If we can not strike such a deal with the US, we will similarly be unable to strike deals with any other country. One of the greatest advantages of exiting the EU will be frustrated, and the immediate freedom to negotiate such agreements once outside the EU on WTO terms is one strong reason in favour of leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement at the end of October.
All of these issues, along with finding the UK’s niche in a changing world, will shortly be in the in-tray of our new Prime Minister. The recent EU Parliament elections, together with the Peterborough by-election, show the peril of no Brexit for the Conservative Party, and how we exit the EU will dictate the place in the world we aspire to. Labour’s policy appears to be that we contract out control of our international trade policy to a third party which has little incentive to fight for our best interests when it occasionally strikes trade agreements with other countries.
I take a different view, and support the UK becoming – once again – a champion of free trade, lowering tariffs, reducing protectionism and adopting an open and global approach to international markets. This will not be possible within a customs union with the EU, nor under the regulation of the Single Market. Whilst I would prefer a good Withdrawal Agreement, we must be prepared to leave on WTO terms without a deal – only this clean break will enable us to fully realise our tremendous potential.