Righto, Trump's having way with Tories

Editorial | Mary Ma 6 Jun 2019

US President Donald Trump's three-day state visit to Britain was more than ceremonial. It was a deliberate display of hardball politics, including a lecture by a relative political novice to the world's oldest democracy on how to pick its leader and run the country's affairs.

Emboldened by his own improved popularity at home, Trump couldn't have been more unapologetic as he singled out former foreign secretary and London mayor Boris Johnson for lavish praise.

Trump's visit had been delayed for some time. It was probably quite a few months ago - when Brexit was still expected to take place as planned on March 29 - when London and Washington agreed to revisit the issue, as it would take awhile to work out the complexities of a state visit.

Prime Minister Theresa May must have been confident back then that her Brexit deal would be passed by parliament. Had Britain divorced the European Union in March, a visit by Trump afterwards to promise an enormous trade deal would have been a timely boost to a post-Brexit Britain.

It would have been a perfect arrangement. However, the reality was May's Brexit deal was rejected by Westminster, with her own political career crashing down in the process.

The script had to be rewritten with two possibilities: one, postpone the state visit for another time; or two, press ahead.

It wouldn't surprise me if London had suggested a deferral, but this was refused by the White House. In view of Trump's personal character, he wouldn't want to be jerked around.

It was clear over the past three days that Trump arrived in London with an agenda, specifically to influence the Conservative leadership contest, in which the winner will also become prime minister.

Thus, he wasted no time openly throwing bouquets at Johnson, showering him with praise at a joint press conference with May, saying: "I know Boris. I like him. I've liked him for a long time he'd do a very good job."

At the same event, he didn't hesitate to aim a conspicuous kick at May's cabinet minister Michael Gove - one of Johnson's leadership rivals.

"I don't know Michael. But would he do a good job, Jeremy?" Trump teased, as he raised the question to British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, another leadership hopeful.

Meanwhile, Trump's criticism of incumbent London mayor Sadiq Khan as a "stone cold loser" was based on something personal. But that brickbat would also galvanize ultra-right members within the Tories.

All in all, most of the non-royals he met in London were Tory right-wingers. His 20-minute telephone conversation with Johnson instead of a one-on-one meeting was probably a calculated move at Johnson's request.

For Johnson wouldn't want to scare moderate Tory members of parliament because he would need their support to enter the second round of the leadership election.

Obviously, Trump understood this very well, knowing Johnson is unpopular among the moderates.

With May officially resigning as party leader tomorrow, Trump is looking to work with a hardline Brexiteer in the post-May era.

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