Trump UK visit: President’s Nato summit trip could shake up the election campaign
Prime minister hopes US president will stay out of battle for 12 December ballot
The prime minister has made clear his hope that Mr Trump will steer clear of commentary on British politics during his visit for a meeting of Nato leaders, and Downing Street has yet to confirm any one-on-one meeting between the pair.
But when the president faces the press following the meeting in a Hertfordshire country hotel on Wednesday, he will inevitably face questions on his view of the election, the ongoing Brexit process and the highly sensitive issue of whether the NHS should be on the table in trade talks between the UK and US.
Mr Johnson will also face the awkward task of brokering peace in the war of words between Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the recent Turkish incursion in northern Syria, which led the French president to warn that Nato had become “brain dead”.
Ahead of the meeting, the prime minister issued an appeal for unity among the 29 member states of an alliance which has been strained by differences over Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the president on the eve of his arrival urging him to drop his demand for "total market access" to the UK's public services as part of any trade deal. And Mr Corbyn called on Mr Johnson to suspend trade talks until Washington agrees to exclude any reference to pharmaceuticals in its negotiating objectives, accepts the role of the regulator Nice in keeping NHS drug prices down and rules out US companies using courts abroad to gain access to UK public services.
In his letter to Trump, the Labour leader said that the contents of leaked accounts of a UK-US trade working group which he revealed last week had raised concerns that US "big pharma" firms were trying to change British rules on drug patents in a way which would significantly increase the cost of medicines to the NHS.
He told the president: "I am sure you understand that our coming general election on 12 December means the British public need urgent clarity that our NHS is genuinely off the table in UK-US trade talks and will not be exposed to higher costs from US drugs companies."
And Ruth Bergan of the UK Trade Justice Movement said “A trade deal with the US must not proceed unless we can see hard evidence that the NHS is properly excluded, that the US is committed to tackling climate change and that proper processes for scrutiny are in place in both countries. Anything less would be a betrayal of promises made by all parties.”
On his last visit to the UK in June, Trump said the NHS was “on the table” for trade talks, only to hastily backtrack after his comments sparked a furore.
The president has previously been warm in his support for Mr Johnson – famously embarrassing Theresa May by saying her rival would make a good prime minister on the eve of talks with her. But with polls showing an overwhelming majority of Britons have a negative view of the president, many Conservatives fear that any endorsement could do more damage than good to Johnson’s electoral prospects.
Mr Johnson left no doubt he would prefer the president to keep quiet about the election, saying: “We have very close relationships and friendships with the US at every level of government. But what we don’t do traditionally, as loving allies and friends, is get involved in each other’s election campaigns.”
As he set off for London, Mr Trump’s focus was on the House Judiciary Committee hearing on impeachment scheduled for Wednesday, which his lawyers are refusing to attend.
“I will be representing our country in London at Nato, while the Democrats are holding the most ridiculous impeachment hearings in history,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Read the transcripts, NOTHING was done or said wrong! The radical left is undercutting our country. Hearings scheduled on same dates as Nato!”
Mr Trump seized upon an interview in which Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky denied having discussed the delivery of withheld US military aid to his country as part of a “quid pro quo” deal in return for investigating allegations about the business interests of the son of Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
Mr Zelensky told Time magazine: “I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo. That’s not my thing. I don’t want us to look like beggars.”
Mr Trump responded in a tweet: “Breaking news: The president of Ukraine has just again announced that President Trump has done nothing wrong with respect to Ukraine and our interactions or calls.”
Mr Trump and other leaders will attend a glittering Buckingham Palace reception hosted by the Queen on Tuesday evening. Also among the guests will be Mr Corbyn, who has previously said he would take advantage of any opportunity to meet the president to urge him to reconsider his decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate change accord.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Johnson will chair a meeting with Mr Erdogan, Mr Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel at 10 Downing Street to discuss the situation in northern Syria. The prime minister last month voiced his concern to Erdogan about the offensive by Turkish troops in a Kurdish-held area following the withdrawal of US forces, which led to the displacement of an estimated 300,000 people.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said that the prime minister has welcomed the subsequent suspension of fighting in the area and described Tuesday’s meeting as “an opportunity discuss this and look at the broader issues in relation to security”.
Responding to French criticism last week, Mr Erdogan said that Mr Macron should check to see if he was “brain dead”.
The UK was invited by Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg to host the alliance’s 70th anniversary leaders’ meeting in recognition of its key role in the organisation’s creation.
Asked if Mr Johnson shared Mr Macron’s assessment of the impact on the organisation’s usefulness of Turkish belligerence and US disengagement, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The prime minister’s view is that Nato is the most enduring and successful alliance in military history and it continues to adapt to the evolving threats we face.
“It is the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security and it helps to keep 1 billion people safe. The PM will emphasise that all members must be united behind shared priorities, so Nato can adapt to the challenges ahead.”
Downing Street pointed out that since the 2014 Nato summit in Wales, non-US members’ defence budgets have increased by a total of $130bn (£100bn), going some way to ease perennial Washington gripes about the imbalance of financial burdens.