Brexit and a not-so-special relationship

Brexiters promote the delusion Britain and the US can recreate a mythical partnership

Philip Stephens




Politics throws up excruciating coincidences. Just as Theresa May’s cabinet cracks under the strain of Conservative infighting about the shape of Brexit, Donald Trump tips up in Europe with a reminder that the Atlantic alliance is crumbling. Until 2016 British foreign policy blended partnership in Europe with influence in Washington. Now its ship of state is navigating without a compass.

Those who enjoy politics as reality television have been feasting this week. The US president has smashed the furniture at Nato. Boris Johnson has quit the Foreign Office, charging, in Trumpian terms, that Mrs May is leading a deep state conspiracy to turn Britain, post Brexit, into a “colony” of Brussels. The cabinet’s Brexit negotiator, David Davis, also resigned, albeit with a measure of the dignity that forever eludes the former foreign secretary.

Mr Trump and Mr Johnson share an abiding narcissism. There is something ineffably childish about the way they look at the world. The president is unabashed in his mendacity; Mr Johnson’s self-crafted image as a maverick scarcely conceals a record as a cheat and a liar. His officials marked down the former foreign secretary as possessed of a front-rank ego and second-class mind. His resignation letter, an extended tantrum, was true to character.

Mr Johnson’s departure will restore some intelligence and probity to British diplomacy; it will do nothing to end the Brexit headache. Mrs May has come up with a plan for the future relationship with the EU that will satisfy no one. And it may be there will be no version of Brexit that will command a majority in the House of Commons. For his part, Mr Johnson has returned to his obsessive quest for the keys of 10 Downing Street. This looks like self-delusion. Yet something of the same was said of Mr Trump’s run for the White House.

America had scarcely stopped counting the votes in the 2016 election before Mrs May had dispatched her invitation to Mr Trump: Come to Britain. Meet the Queen. Have your picture taken at Buckingham Palace. American leaders love the pomp and pageant, and the Queen has serious pulling power. This was before, though, the Brits had caught clear sight of Mr Trump.

This week’s visit was duly pared down from a state occasion — with all the paraphernalia and regalia — to a series of “working” meetings. The president’s time in London has been cut to almost nothing to avoid collisions with public protests. He still gets to meet the monarch, but at Windsor. His talks with Mrs May will be at her country residence, Chequers. He will then be packed off to the golf course he owns in Scotland.

The Queen likes and admires Barack and Michelle Obama. Aides speak of a genuine warmth in the relationship. They have not said anything about what she thinks about taking tea with Mr Trump — they do not have to.

To be fair, most of Mrs May’s predecessors would have issued the same invitation with similar speed. British prime ministers have been burdened with the notion of a “special relationship” with Washington ever since Winston Churchill popularised the phrase in his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri.

Britain’s wartime leader embellished the notion with all sorts of flummery and myth about eternal bonds, familial ties and cultural affinities. He imagined, of course, a partnership of equals. When he had sat down in Potsdam with Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin a year earlier it had been as one of the “Big Three” — a phrase the British clung to for another decade. The task of prime ministers since has been to preserve the idea of a unique bond even as the realities of relative power have widened beyond anything Churchill imagined.

Some have been more successful than others. The English patrician Harold Macmillan struck up an unlikely rapport with John F Kennedy, an Irish-American Catholic. Margaret Thatcher’s unabashed Atlanticism gave her permission to speak her mind to Ronald Reagan. Even before the Iraq debacle, Tony Blair’s courting of George W Bush risked veering too close to that of supplicant rather than partner.

In other circumstances, the Trump presidency might have been an opportunity to normalise things — to acknowledge the strategic importance of the alliance with Washington while re-affirming Britain’s right to make its own choices. Having blown up the bridges to Europe, however, the Brexiters have promoted instead the delusion that Britain and the US can recreate the mythical special relationship.

Fine, says Mr Trump, as long as Brits can be force-fed American chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef and will sign over the National Health Service to US businesses. The president does not believe in Atlanticism. Nor in alliances grounded in shared interests and values. The US has to win — every time.

As for Brexit, Mr Johnson and his gang are promising to vote down any deal that Mrs May brings back from Brussels. Oddly enough, this provides the only glimpse of light for a nation watching the twin pillars of its foreign policy being reduced to rubble.

If Mr Johnson, for once, is true to his word and wrecks talks with the EU27, the result is less likely to be a chaotic cliff-edge Brexit than an indefinite extension of the status quo and, ultimately, a second referendum. Thankfully, the former foreign secretary has not thought this one through.

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