This blog post has been updated.
President Trump has told British Prime Minister Theresa May he will cancel his state visit to Britain, the Guardian reported today, supposedly on the grounds that there will be mass protests. But while some official disappointment may be expressed, behind the scenes there will be no sorrow in Downing Street. Although I don’t want to exaggerate the U.S. president’s importance in last Thursday’s snap election in Britain — the main issues were domestic — this was a very hard-fought contest. Had a few hundred votes gone the other way in a handful of constituencies, May’s Conservatives might still have their parliamentary majority. And there is a serious argument that, on the margins, Trump helped swing the electorate against the Tories — in three ways.
- May’s triumphant, lovey-dovey meeting with Trump in January, a few days after the inauguration, paradoxically made her look weak. Having wrenched Britain away from Europe, she seemed to be running to Washington looking for friends — any friends. Her quick announcement of the Trump state visit went down extremely badly: Nearly 2 million people signed a petition against it. A film clip of May holding Trump’s hand — apparently he doesn’t like walking down stairs — featured in a pro-Labour music video and numerous cartoons, also reinforced May’s unpleasant “hard-right” image. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attacked May as an American puppet: “Waiting to see which way the wind blows in Washington isn’t strong leadership.”
- Trump’s vitriolic Twitter attacks on the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack here a week ago made the U.S. president seem even more odious. More to the point, his tweets were denounced (and Khan was praised) by pretty much everybody speaking in any public forum, from television to social media to the local pub — everybody, that is, except May. She dodged questions about Trump’s tweets before eventually conceding, rather woodenly, that “I think Sadiq Khan is doing a good job and it’s wrong to say anything else.” This didn’t go down at all well, especially in London, where Labour’s numbers were way up.
- Trumps’s well-known views on Europe made the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seem more sane and more mainstream than would once have been the case. Corbyn is famously anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-transatlantic alliance, as you would expect given his Marxist past. This should have been a strike against him in Britain, where the alliance with America has historically been popular. But now we have a U.S. president who is also publicly skeptical of NATO, who has little time for the transatlantic alliance, and who is in addition considered here to be incompetent and irresponsible. To put it differently, it is hard for Conservatives to argue “Corbyn is wacky and dangerous” when the U.S. president is seen as even wackier and far more dangerous.
Once again: The influence of the U.S. president was not a major factor in the British vote. But he didn’t help the ruling party, and nobody else wants him to come to Britain either. If European leaders facing electorates keep their distance from Trump in the future, don’t be surprised.