World·Analysis

Britain relying on the royals to smooth Trump visit

Trapped in an existential crisis born of the Brexit debate, Britain’s ruling classes are still trying to reassure themselves that the so-called "special relationship" between Britain and the United States is both meaningful and maintainable in the Trump era.

U.K. 'special relationship' with U.S. 'more complicated than it used to be,' says ex-ambassador

U.S. President Donald Trump is seen at Windsor Castle in July 2018 in Windsor, U.K. (Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)

What to do when faced with the second coming of Donald Trump?  Well, if you're the United Kingdom, you throw the royals at him, and as many as you can. 

When the U.S. president begins a three-day state visit on Monday, he's expected to have lunch with the Queen and Prince Harry and take tea with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, a.k.a. Charles and Camilla.

In the evening, Prince William and Kate Middleton will be among the guests attending a state banquet the Queen is hosting in Trump's honour at Buckingham Palace.

"It is part and parcel of diplomacy when the royals are deployed," said Christopher Meyer, a former U.K. ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003. "And if Trump likes that and is flattered by it, why not?"

Trapped in an existential crisis born of the Brexit debate, Britain's ruling classes are still trying to reassure themselves that the so-called "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S. is both meaningful and maintainable in the Trump era. 

"It's more complicated than it used to be," said Meyer in a fine example of typical British understatement. "I had the relatively more simple Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to deal with compared with the erratic course that Donald Trump has taken."

Christopher Meyer served as U.K. ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 to 2003. (Lily Martin/CBC)

An estimated 250,000 Brits demonstrated against Trump's working visit to the U.K. last July, a fraught affair during which Trump waded straight into the politics of Brexit, which he backs. 

He gave an interview to the Sun newspaper, insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May by trashing her negotiating skills and praising the leadership qualities of her archrival in the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson.

More anti-Trump demonstrations are planned this week with protesters expected to again unloose the famous Trump baby blimp, a giant diaper-clad balloon fashioned in Trump's image. 

A number of key politicians have declined the Queen's invitation to attend the state dinner for Trump, among them the Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable, the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow and the leader of the official opposition, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Theresa May should not be rolling out the red carpet for a state visit to honour a president who rips up vital international treaties, backs climate change denial and uses racist and misogynist rhetoric," Corbyn said in April. 

Theresa May issued the invitation on behalf of the Queen soon after Trump was elected, drawing condemnation from critics who accused her of selling out British values in her eagerness to secure a trade deal with the U.S. in a post-EU world. 

That world, of course, has yet to emerge. The divisions between those wanting to leave and remain in the European Union are more defined than ever and adding to the sense of political paralysis here.  

At odds on key issues

The sense of Brexit-based need adds to Britain's difficulties as it attempts to navigate the Trump presidency. The country is at odds with the United States on a number of key issues.  

"First and foremost is on Iran," said Heather Conley, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This is where the U.K. has remained very faithful to its position with the other EU member states … on preserving the Iran nuclear agreement."  

A six-metre-high cartoon baby blimp of U.S. President Donald Trump is flown as a protest against his visit, in Parliament Square near the Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, home of Big Ben, in London in 2018. More protesters, and the blimp, are expected back on the streets of the British capital when Trump arrives this week. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Britain is also finding itself under pressure from Washington as it considers allowing the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei to build part of its 5G network.

Trump is expected to raise the issue this week with a threat to limit U.S. intelligence sharing with the U.K. if it proceeds.

"This is going to be a very fine balancing act between maintaining an economic relationship with China in a post-Brexit environment, as well as maintaining close ties to the United States," said Conley.  

It's a lot to hope that a few days of royal exposure and pomp and ceremony will restore the special relationship to a warmer and more equitable footing.  

U.K. politics in disarray

Washington certainly has an advantage given the disarray at Downing Street just now.

Trump will meet with May on Tuesday, just days before she is due to hand in her resignation as the leader of the Conservative Party, having been forced by her own party to set out a timetable for her departure earlier this month.

She'll stay on as caretaker prime minister while her party holds an internal contest to choose her replacement.  

Trump has already waded into that one, giving yet another interview to the Sun newspaper praising Boris Johnson for the job.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, right, stands with U.S. President Donald Trump, centre, and U.S. first lady Melania Trump on the steps of the Great Court as the bands of the Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards perform a ceremonial welcome, as they arrive for a black-tie dinner at Blenheim Palace, west of London, in 2018. (Ben Stansall/Associated Press)

Trump also said he might meet Nigel Farage, populist leader of the Brexit Party and professional thorn in the side of  the Conservative government for some years.

Christopher Meyer said more salt on the Brexit wound is the last thing Britain needs. But he's also not comfortable with demonstrations against the U.S. president. 

"Because if you disrespect the man, in the eyes of many Americans, maybe a majority of Americans, you disrespect the office of the presidency and you just don't want to do that."  

It is a worry especially now, he said, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings when so many allied soldiers fought and died together on the beaches of Normandy during the Second World War.

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