In the perennial Christmas movie Love Actually, a hapless but charming British Prime Minister (played by Hugh Grant) stands up to a boorish American president who sexually accosts a young woman (the delightful Martine McCutcheon) and is generally just a bit of a pillock. He is met with thunderous applause from a grateful and newly-patriotic country.
After US President Donald Trump’s latest round of tweets, many Brits are hoping Mrs May will deliver a rousing defence of her nation that will rival Hugh Grant.
They should not be holding their breaths.
The latest threat to Anglo-American relations began when, on Wednesday, Trump retweeted Britain First, a neo-fascist group which regularly spreads anti-Muslim propaganda. As if that wasn’t bad enough, later Wednesday evening, Trump picked a fight with Prime Minister Theresa May, who earlier that day had condemned his tacit endorsement for Britain First. “Don’t focus on me,” Trump tweeted at the Prime Minister, “focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We [the USA] are doing just fine!”
What Trump is doing is an unprecedented intrusion by an American leader into British domestic policy. He is spreading lies and stoking Islamophobia in Britain in order to rally his base and change the story back home, where his erratic behaviour and the Russia probe have led to the worst poll numbers of any president since polling began. Trump’s tweets are a distraction, but they have real-world consequences of legitimising Britain First and giving them a platform the size of which they could only dream of.
So it’s understandable that pundits and politicians have said Trump is not welcome in the UK, encouraging Mrs May to rescind his invitation to visit the country. After all, this is a US President meddling in British affairs in order to sew discord and promote Islamophobia. If that doesn’t call for a Hugh Grant-style speech, nothing does.
But say what you will about Theresa May, she knows how to play it cool. It seems like another lifetime when, for the Daily Dot, I wrote that then-candidate Donald Trump wouldn’t be banned from the UK, despite his hate-mongering risking the Special Relationship between Britain and the United States. Like it or not, I thought in 2015, Britain needed America. That is even more true than it is today.
Mrs May is already in the midst of the most complicated negotiations Britain has undertaken since the end of the Second World War… It simply isn’t in Britain’s national interest to now pick a fight with America, too
This isn’t me talking down Britain. “The mythical “special relationship” aside,” I wrote nearly two years ago, “we’re NATO allies who routinely share intelligence through Five Eyes, a collection of Anglosphere countries that includes Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Our military and intelligence cooperation runs deep and cannot be dismissed. Britain and America need one another to combat the Islamic State in the Middle East and a possibly-nuclear North Korea in the Far East. We cannot allow Trump to drive a wedge between us now.”
Britain and America have shared interests regardless of who occupies the Oval Office or 10 Downing Street. Theresa May can’t risk the diplomatic turmoil rescinding Trump’s visit would surely create. There’s an argument to be made that she should never have extended the invite – and she shouldn’t have – but what’s done is done. She can’t just go back on her word now without further straining relations with Washington at a time when North Korea continues to fire rockets over Japan and global security is, generally speaking, at its most perilous point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
And then there’s Brexit. Mrs May is already in the midst of the most complicated negotiations Britain has undertaken since the end of the Second World War. Relations with European allies, especially the French and the Germans, are fraught enough. It simply isn’t in Britain’s national interest to now pick a fight with America, too. Banning Trump from the UK would do just that.
Obviously, Number 10 couldn’t let Trump’s tweets go unanswered. Mrs May had to respond. On the whole, she did so proportionally and diplomatically. “The fact that we work together does not mean that we are afraid to say when we think that the United States have got it wrong and to be very clear with them,” she said. “I am very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do.” Forceful but measured, Mrs May struck just the right tone. She’s not yet taken Trump’s bait and engaged in a diplomatic row, and she’s quite right not to.
As much as I and millions of Brits (and hell, Americans) would love to see Trump banned from the UK, the fact is it would be a diplomatic disaster that Britain simply doesn’t need and can’t handle right now. So as much as we’d all love to see Theresa May go all Love Actually on Trump, it’s probably better she acts not like Hugh Grant, but rather finds the cold, calculated restraint of Emma Thompson’s scorned wife – holding it together for the sake of the children, even if all she really wants to do is punch that arrogant arsehole who continues to betray everything that once made their relationship special.