Foreign affairs rarely play a role in British elections. The exception, of course, is Europe: both Labour in 1974 and the Conservatives in 2015 won a narrow parliamentary majority after promising a referendum on UK membership.
For reasons of practicality and protocol, elections are usually scheduled to avoid summits, or the visits of foreign leaders. But nothing is normal any more and 2019’s rushed general election features the first visit of a US president to Watford, an unprepossessing commuter town north of London. Donald Trump flew into the UK on December 2 for a two-day visit to attend a meeting of NATO leaders marking the 70th anniversary of the alliance.
One of the many curiosities of our age is that this most unpopular US president for the British should come so often. Another is that Boris Johnson, a US-born, Atlanticist prime minister, earnestly wishes the leader of the free world was not in the UK. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn, a very-far-from Atlanticist leader of the opposition, is delighted that he should be.
Using the special relationship
The Foreign Office may be the second most prestigious office of state, but in elections, foreign secretaries or their shadows from the opposition seldom find themselves much called on. Defence has had an impact though, such as in 1983 and 1987 when Labour was portrayed as too pacifistic, and in 2005, when the party wished they had been so.
Those episodes revolved around the special relationship between the US and UK – and prime ministers have not been averse to the blandishments of presidents on pre-election visits to the US, such as Harold Macmillan in 1959, and David Cameron in 2015.
Presidents have been prepared to assist in other ways, as I’ve been examining in my research on the historical relationships between US presidents and British premiers. Ronald Reagan’s humiliation of Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1987 calculatedly bolstered the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. But there has never been a presidential visit during a general election before now.
Part of the appeal of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum was Britain going out into the world and making more of its historic ties with what Winston Churchill called “English-speaking peoples”. This overlooked the fact that every American president since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s has wanted Britain to lead in Europe because it enhanced US interests to have its closest ally at the centre of what became the world’s largest trading bloc. The exception, as ever, is President Trump.
The special relationship has weakened in the topsy-turvy political world since 2015 – the year Corbyn became Labour leader, Trump announced his presidential candidacy and the British parliament passed legislation to hold a referendum on EU membership. In April 2016 Barack Obama – the most popular recent American president for the British public – visited the UK at the invitation of the prime minister, David Cameron, to assist with the increasingly panicked Remain campaign.
At the personal request of Cameron, Obama told the world that in the event of Brexit, Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for a trade deal. His intervention backfired, reinforcing the Leave narrative of a remote and condescending elite – and Remain never recovered.
Always keen to present himself in opposition to Obama, Trump has pushed his own anti-establishment narrative, which extended to condemnation of transnational institutions including NATO and the EU. In offering the promise of a free trade agreement to the UK, Trump has presented himself as a champion of self-government and so of Brexit, responsibility for which he characteristically ascribed to himself.
As if that were not a sufficient transgression of diplomatic norms, Trump also suggested in 2016 that Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, should be appointed British ambassador to the US.
More seriously, his relationship with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was quite unlike that of any other president and prime minister, as I’ve examined in forthcoming research. Standing alongside May in 2018 and 2019, Trump embarrassed her, and breaking with any sense of protocol or propriety, also praised the person clearly positioning himself to replace her – who, shortly thereafter, did just that.
US presidents have attended NATO summits in the UK before – Jimmy Carter in 1977, George HW Bush in 1990, and Obama in 2014. But Trump’s attitudes towards NATO were originally the principal source of British consternation at his election.
It wasn’t known then that he wasn’t a man of settled policies. In three years he has moved from being NATO’s most prominent critic, to its staunchest defender in the face of criticism of the alliance by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
A liability for Johnson
It would never have been necessary with any other president, but on this December visit Trump has done as requested – he has observed convention and said he would “stay out of the election”. Except that, insofar as he flagrantly contradicted something he said the last time he was in the UK in the express interest of the prime minister, he has not stayed out of British politics.
Significantly, the impact of Trump’s visit to the UK is on a domestic policy area that is, by contrast, always central to elections: the National Health Service. In a campaign characterised on all sides by millions of this, billions of that, and trillions of the other, Labour has persistently claimed there will be a US-imposed increase in the NHS drugs bill of £500m a week. NHS staff duly joined the now-traditional public protests that mark a Trump visit.
If Trump was ever an asset for Johnson, he’s now deemed a liability. The president sees something of himself in man he’s called “Britain Trump”, not least perhaps their at times disarming physical resemblance. But given British public attitudes to Trump, it’s prudent for Johnson to maintain distance during the last week of a tight election. Trump’s toxicity has the potential to poison Johnson’s hitherto effective campaign.
So after much speculation as to whether they would meet – itself extraordinary – Johnson and Trump did, but, equally extraordinarily, there were no photographs of the host and his guest at that meeting at Number 10 or at a Buckingham Palace reception. The two were eventually photographed together arriving at The Grove, the venue for the NATO leaders summit in Watford.
By contrast, Corbyn has wanted nothing more than the chance to be photographed challenging Trump on the NHS – though it emerged they did not meet at the palace. But not on NATO. On which they agree. A voter could be forgiven for being confused.