Johnson is right to be nervous about Trump's visit – he is an unpopular, unpredictable spin doctor's nightmare
From Labour attacks over the NHS to national security, the prime minister should be worried about what issues the 45th president could wade into
A prime minister would normally welcome a chance to perform on the world stage, especially during an election campaign. Yet Boris Johnson will be feeling nothing but trepidation about hosting this week’s Nato summit for two reasons – Donald and Trump.
The US president arrives in London on Monday night and will be in the UK until Wednesday. He will hold a press conference then after the Nato meeting in Watford, but his public appearances with Johnson will be strictly limited. The prime minister gives the impression he would rather be photographed with Andrew Neil. No formal meeting with Trump has yet been scheduled, which would be unprecedented.
Johnson took the unusual step of warning Trump in public not to interfere in the election, telling LBC on Friday: “When you have close friends and allies like the US and the UK, the best thing is for neither side to get involved in each other’s election campaigns.”
Team Boris is right to be nervous. While US officials insist the president is aware of the protocol about “not wading in to other countries’ elections”, that doesn’t mean he won’t. Trump is a spin doctor’s nightmare – even for his own spinners, who have no idea what he might tweet at 5am. So Johnson’s team, for all their best laid election plans, are at the mercy of events, and one tweet away from disaster.
Trump’s idea of a “helpful” statement often turns out to be what Whitehall politely calls “unhelpful” – disastrous, in other words. He does not respect diplomatic niceties. During his UK visit in 2018, Trump attended a banquet with Theresa May. As they looked at their phones at the end, May’s aides and US officials were horrified that Trump had given an interview to The Sun warning her proposed Brexit deal would “probably kill” a US-UK trade deal. (She had rejected his advice to sue the EU, which would hardly have improved the atmosphere of the Brexit negotiations.)
Paul Harrison, who was May’s press secretary, recalled today that the self-styled “very stable genius” was equally unpredictable in phone calls. “Once, apparently inspired by the early US release of the Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, Mr Trump gave Theresa May an unsolicited and lengthy verdict on Second World War military history. Suffice it to say, this subject wasn’t supposed to be the centrepiece of the agenda that day.”
Johnson is well aware that Trump is deeply unpopular in the UK. It was evident in ITV’s election debate last night, when Richard Burgon, Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon won easy applause from the studio audience for attacking Trump. Sturgeon accused Johnson of modelling himself on the US president. Although Jeremy Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader ever, voters know he would be more likely to stand up to Trump than the prime minister.
President Trump has described his pal Johnson as “Britain Trump” helping Labour to claim the prime minister wants a “Trump Brexit”. Johnson will be nervous because Trump’s visit will hand Labour a bridge to its favourite issue – the NHS.
Under pressure following his BBC interview with Neil, Corbyn played his Trump card, revealing 451 pages of documents about initial trade talks between US and UK officials. Some Labour insiders thought they would have been better retained for Trump’s visit, when the disclosure might have put Trump and Johnson on the spot.
The dossier did not have a smoking gun proving Labour’s “NHS for sale” charge, which Johnson vehemently denies. But it did confirm that higher drug prices would be on the table. This raises an important question: what would Johnson do if Trump called off the trade talks after the UK took the NHS off the agenda? He would be desperate for a deal with the US.
Before the London Bridge terrorist attack, the Tories had planned to make this “security week” because of the summit to mark Nato’s 70th birthday. The gathering might now be a more sober affair, reminding Nato’s 29 members of their common enemies, and easing tensions over Emmanuel Macron’s remark that alliance is “brain dead”.
But London Bridge might also tempt Trump into giving his verdict on events. Johnson will be hoping the president does not renew his feud with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, over security in the city.
If Johnson has to choose the lesser of two evils, he would probably offend Trump and rebuild the Atlantic bridge afterwards, rather than harm his own election chances. Perhaps they will have a mini-row about climate change. But we shouldn’t hold our breath for a Love Actually moment.