Did British prime minister Theresa May take a shot at Donald Trump in yesterday afternoon’s address to the UN General Assembly? It certainly sounds like it. Or was Trump a proxy target for another blond populist, Boris Johnson? It certainly looks like it.
On Tuesday, Trump had rejected the ‘ideology of globalism’ and defended the nation state and its ‘doctrine of patriotism’. The next day, May mounted the same stage and implicitly rejected Trump’s stance:
‘We have seen what happens when the natural patriotism which is a cornerstone of a healthy society is warped into aggressive nationalism, exploiting fear and uncertainty to promote identity politics at home and belligerent confrontation abroad, while breaking rules and undermining institutions.’
The United States under Trump isn’t the only state to fit that description: much of it fits China, Russia and Turkey too. But who, other than the United States, could May have had in mind when she referred to past ‘mistakes’ and failed efforts to ‘impose democracy on other countries through regime change’?
Apart, that is, from her own Conservative party, and her predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron. In 2011, Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy of France encouraged the Obama administration to bring down the Gaddafi regime in Libya. The result was not democracy but civil war, a migration crisis, and what Obama ruefully called a ‘mess’.
Perhaps May had other Conservatives in mind. That might explain why she would antagonise the United States, Britain’s patron and ally, with Brexit looming in March and the UK’s economic future in the balance.
In the last two weeks, pro-Brexit Conservatives, none of them admirers of May, have launched a co-ordinated campaign in the US, to ‘make the case for a US-UK free trade agreement’, as a well-placed British source told me. First, it was ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s remarks in conversation at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual black-tie dinner, a who’s who of Atlanticists, free traders, classical liberals and neoconservatives. Then it was ex-agriculture secretary Owen Paterson at the Heritage Foundation — a tougher sell, given that Heritage Foundation personnel advised on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and the Foundation then helped to staff the Trump White House. After that, it was soon to be ex-Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, in a Washington Examiner op-ed.
At the UN, Theresa May countered her domestic enemies’ transatlantic flanking manoeuvre. Where they have flattered the United States and the Trump administration, she has criticised. She may have calculated that it will cost her little. Relations with Trump have deteriorated since he expressed the hope that she would be a second Thatcher — ‘My Maggie’, as he said. May has needed any Thatcherite reserves of grit to still be in office after the humiliation of last July’s summit, when Trump used a joint press conference to praise May’s rival Boris Johnson and criticise her Brexit negotiating strategy.
May might also calculate that slyly denouncing the United States is a good way to signal to the European Union that she sees Britain staying close to the EU and its regulations after Brexit — close enough, in fact, to produce a Brexit in name only, which would make impossible a free trade deal with the US or any other country.
May might be right in both of these calculations, but she stands to gain little. The European Union seems set on refusing her every overture. In July, her most recent accommodation to the EU precipitated Johnson’s resignation; despite that expense of her limited political capital, the EU rejected her offer. And if the US grants the UK a free trade agreement, it won’t be on grounds of sentiment, or talk about relationships special or routine. The US will grant that agreement because it is in its economic interest.
Johnson, Paterson and Hannan, all pro-Brexit in 2016 when May was against it, and all more convincing Atlanticists than her too, made good arguments in their American pitches for a free trade deal. May’s UN gambit, however, exposes her as an unreliable, unsuitable partner.
She was against Brexit but now she is for it. She was for Trump but now she is against him. On Tuesday, instead of advancing her country’s national interest, whether in the manner that Trump described at the UN or not, she was merely globalising the Conservatives’ slow-motion civil war over Brexit.
The Conservatives have not been this divided in decades, if not since the early 20th century. The question is not whether May will lose her position, but when. The mood is so toxic that pro-EU Conservatives are talking about breaking away to form a new, pro-EU centre party with similarly distressed Labour centrists. Yesterday, like Johnson and co. earlier this month, May was playing domestic games on someone else’s stage. In that, if not much else, she has something in common with Donald Trump.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.