Every few years, the Special Relationship resets.
In his eight years in the White House, Barack Obama worked with three different British Prime Ministers: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May. From reported kitchen snubs, to basketball court-side bromances, to first meetings in Beijing, three successive leaders of UK governments wanted to be seen to be close to the US President. Can the same be said the forthcoming Trump Presidency?
The Spectator’s James Forsyth has claimed that, privately, Downing Street does not know Donald Trump or anyone inside his inner circle. Even Mitt Romney managed a somewhat awkward photo opportunity with “Mr Leader” Ed Miliband four years ago. When the President-elect is inaugurated in January it will be a year since the UK Parliament debated an e-petition calling for him to be banned from the country.
While the exact implications of a Trump Presidency for the UK will take time to be felt and understood, the Special Relationship is clearly heading for a paradigm shift. As Chatham House Researcher Tom Raines pointed out on 9 November, Donald Trump’s election represents someone who is “diametrically opposed” to the system of international order on which the UK has based its foreign policy over the last forty years.
The thinking inside Downing Street and the Foreign Office will be based around one word “opportunities”, both in engaging with the new administration and in looking elsewhere. You only have to look at the swift slap down Number 10 delivered to the story in today’s Telegraph that UKIP’s Nigel Farage would be relied upon to advise the Government on dealing with the new President. The anarchic wave of populism that swept the UK to Brexit and Mr Trump into the Oval Office is one that Theresa May’s Government is none too keen to ride again so soon.
Yet common threads could make for common ties. In reaching out to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Boris Johnson is seeking to formalise diplomatic ties, rather than beholden to the beer garden diplomacy of Mr Farage. Mr Trump’s business interests and connections to the UK offer another avenue for exploration.
Balancing Mr Trump’s commitment to protectionism against his appropriation of the language of Brexit as a backdrop for his own political earthquake means it is impossible to say whether the prize of UK-US free trade deal is completely off the table. Moreover, an increasingly protectionist US could bind the free trade powers in the world together and allow the UK Government to test out its stated commitment to being a “leader” in that movement.
The election of Donald Trump to the White House caps off a year that has seen the certainties of the international order the UK operates in shattered. In these uncertain, divisive times, the claim of both Brexiteers and the next US President that their countries will emerge stronger will be tested as never before.
Mike Indian is Political Consultant and a member of DeHavilland’s Content team, leading on infrastructure and Scottish affairs. He leads on DeHavilland's dynamic content, specifically videos and podcasts, and regularly appears in the media as a political commentator. A graduate of Lancaster University, he has worked as a freelance journalist.