29 November 2018
Dealing with Trump.
By J R Thomas
In 1880 William Ewart Gladstone, ambitious shadow cabinet member of the Liberal Party, then in opposition, undertook what has become known as the Midlothian Campaign. Benjamin Disraeli’s Tory government was faltering in its grasp of current affairs, increasingly ridden with internal dissent, pursuing an unpopular foreign policy, and facing a slowing economy at home. Gladstone undertook an arduous series of speeches in which he attacked and ridiculed the government, and set out a new philosophy of Liberal politics. His efforts were wildly successful, forcing Disraeli into a general election which he lost by 110 seats, and leading the Marquess of Hartington to step out of the Liberal leadership to cede the leadership, and the post of Prime Minister, to Gladstone.
It would take a more imaginative writer than this one to see any similarities between W Gladstone and T May. Mrs M though seems to have begun her very own version of the Midlothian Campaign with a tour of the British Isles to try to persuade the voters to support her Brexit deal. It is a rummy course for her to undertake. Gladstone was propounding a new philosophy and a moral approach; May is trying to sell a terrible hotchpotch of a deal which will merely buy a little time until somebody can deal with all the items to be parked in the pending tray. The lady’s record on appealing direct to voters is of course not great, as those with memories which go as far back as her electoral national stump of June 2017 will affirm. And quite what she hopes to gain is obscure. The electorate has no vote in this matter and, if Mrs May has been clear about anything, it is that they are not going to get one.
But Theresa is nothing if not dogged, and off she set, to Wales, a sort of warm up for Northern Ireland, where in truth her fate lies, as Mrs Foster and her Unionist colleagues are making increasingly clear.
It might though have been better to start her tour in Washington. There is one voice there that, whilst it might not procure her any support, certainly has the power to undermine her. And so it has come to pass, before Mrs May even reached the borders of proud Cymru. The Donald spoke, and he praised the Brexit deal. It “sounds like a great deal for the EU” he said, adding that it would probably not be possible to establish a separate trade deal with the UK. If the Leavers wanted to tie a trip-rope across the Prime Minister’s door as she left 10, Downing Street to begin her tour, they really couldn’t have found a better one.
Does Mr Trump mean what he said? Almost certainly he does. Two years on the part of Donald learning the art of politics, and two years of observers learning the art of Donald, suggest that the President is not such a buffoon as his style and demeanour may on occasion suggest. The President is no great fan of the EU, or of many European countries, and he has an affection for the UK, but he knows a weak deal when he sees one. This one suggests that Britain will remain close to the EU for many years yet, and that American commercial interests will be best served by keeping close to Brussels and to the stronger European states.
Oddly, Mrs May has made no effort to charm and cultivate the most powerful man in the world. The early days of hand-holding in the White House are long gone; Mrs May has done nothing to disguise the fact that Mr Trump does not float her boat. M.Macron’s views of the President we know little about, but we might surmise that they would be not natural buddies in the ordinary way of life. But the French President knows that he is not in the ordinary way of life and that America could be a very useful ally to him in his European strategies. He has charmed and flattered his American counterpart, and the Donald has understood that he has an ally in the Elysee, and has responded in kind. That is after all one of the great arts of politics, and if Mrs May did not want to learn it from a Frenchman, she could have studied a role model much closer to home, a lady she meets every Tuesday. Her Majesty has in her long reign had to meet many persons whom she may not have cared for, or even actively disliked, but nobody left Buckingham Palace after meeting HM other than warmed and delighted. It’s not difficult, Theresa, and it is rather essential in the job.
You might argue that Mr Trump is no great example of polished charm and convincing manners. If you are the most powerful man in the world you can get away with more than most (just like the big boss in the office) but when it matters Donald can put the warmth and allure on with the best of them. A Mr Kim of North Korea can attest to that, as can a lot of world leaders and others, having been pleasantly surprised about how surprisingly pleasant the big man can be in person. But it is true to say that Mr Trumps’ natural role is of flatteree rather than flatterer, and Mrs May, unlike, say, Boris or Nigel, has singularly failed to cultivate a man whose actions are key to post Brexit prosperity.
He might have been able to give the British Prime Minister a few basic lessons in negotiation. Mr Trump does know a bit about that, having written, or at least having applied his name, to a book called “The Art of the Deal”. Deals are how Mr T got his wealth, and deals are what he understands more than almost anything. China is currently on the wrong end of the Trump negotiating strategy, where the American President has applied a whole range of tariffs to Chinese goods imported to the USA. Some well sourced leaks say that current tariffs, of around 10%, could go up to 25%, and that more imports are in the to-be-taxed pipeline, which could include iPhones (“No, not that! He wouldn’t, would he?”). Who knows if your favourite bit of hip technology is about to become a little more expensive – or Apple profits suffer – but Mr Trump wants China to think that he might make it so. He wants to bring President Xi to the negotiating table and to deal with China’s trade strategies towards the USA; and he knows that in politics you have to sound as though you mean it. There are rumblings from other eastern countries which are caught in this war by price increases; Malaysia has expressed great concern about the dangers of a trade war.
It is of course not entirely coincidental that the Argentinian G20 summit starts this very Friday and that Presidents X and T will be present and indeed have a meeting scheduled. No point making conciliatory noises just before you start the arm wrestling. Or maybe even after, for a while. But both men would like to achieve a settlement which restarts increasingly sluggish world trade, so at some point some deal will be made.
Maybe Mr Trump will want to make one with Britain after all, in the spring, perhaps. Maybe when March 19th is past; and perhaps when there is some new British leader to negotiate with.