Donald Trump was once a pal to Boris Johnson; now the US president is just a headache for the British PM
Donald Trump was only one of a multitude of headaches for Johnson on Wednesday, as he kicked off his campaign in an election that will serve as a referendum on his Brexit policy
London: Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain spoke with President Donald Trump by phone Tuesday, and to judge by the duelling summaries of the call provided by the White House and No 10 Downing Street, Johnson and Trump were involved in two completely different conversations.
The White House said the two leaders pledged to negotiate "a robust bilateral free trade agreement once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union". Downing Street said nothing about a deal, noting instead that Johnson urged Trump to lift US tariffs on Scotch whisky.
Such divergent accounts of a leader-to-leader call are not unheard of, but the timing of this one, on the eve of Britain's General Election campaign, was telling. It shows just how much of a liability Trump has become for Johnson. Once, the prime minister talked up the benefits of having a close friend in the White House; now he is distancing himself from a figure who is radioactive to many Britons.
Trump was only one of a multitude of headaches for Johnson on Wednesday, as he kicked off his campaign in an election that will serve as a referendum on his Brexit policy — and was already shaping up as one of the most unpredictable, and consequential, of the post-World War II era in Britain.
While Johnson’s Conservative Party leads the Opposition Labour Party in the polls, the prime minister was hit by the resignation of one of his Cabinet ministers in a legal scandal, accusations that his party doctored a TV interview with a Labour leader and questions about why his government was delaying a report on Russian influence in British politics until after the 12 December vote.
Trying to shrug off all the bad news, Johnson rallied supporters in the West Midlands with his message that only a vote for the Conservatives guarantees that Britain will leave the European Union.
Elsewhere in the Midlands, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, drove home his counter-message: That Johnson would sell out Britain’s state health system to a predatory Trump in a trade deal. "We’ll never let Donald Trump get his hands on our National Health Service," he thundered.
Corbyn painted a dystopian picture of a Tory-led Britain that would mimic Trump’s America. “They’ll slash food standards to match the US,” he said, referring darkly to rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice, “and they’ll put chlorinated chicken on our supermarket shelves.”
Corbyn is hardly the first European politician to tap into anti-American sentiment to appeal to voters. But he has a rare opportunity with Trump, who has charted an unapologetically “America First” foreign policy and speaks effusively about his friendship with Johnson.
What makes Trump so dangerous for Johnson is his unpredictability — and his penchant for butting in. He called in to a London radio show last week with unsolicited advice for Johnson’s campaign, and Trump is expected in London for a meeting of NATO leaders in early December, just a few days before Britons go to the polls.
“Corbyn is trying to ensure that anything Trump says will be bad for Johnson — and history suggests he’s not great at shutting up,” said Anand Menon, a professor of politics at King’s College in London.
The Labour Party will do its best to surgically attach the two men over the next five weeks. On Tuesday, the party released a new advertisement showing Johnson in front of a blue bus emblazoned with a banner that said, “We’ll send Trump £500 million a week. Let’s fund US drug firms, not our NHS.”
The ad was a spoof on the infamous pro-Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum in which Johnson posed in front of a red bus with the slogan, “We send the EU £350 million week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” The 350-million pounds claim was spurious, but it helped fuel a narrow Brexit victory.
The 500 million pounds claim, equivalent to nearly $650 million, is similarly dubious: It is hard to imagine any British government agreeing to a deal with the United States that would drive up prescription drug costs by that much. But in a country that reveres its National Health Service, for all its flaws, such appeals can resonate.
Corbyn suffered his own setback Wednesday when the Labour Party’s deputy, Tom Watson, abruptly resigned and said he would not run for his seat in Parliament. A leader of the party’s dwindling centrist faction, Watson’s exit will enable Corbyn to cement control over the party.
For Labour’s leftist leader, painting Trump as Johnson’s villainous friend is a reliable strategy in Britain, where demonstrators greeted the president during his last two visits with a giant balloon depicting him as a diaper-clad baby.
“Generally speaking, foreign leaders don’t play a role in British elections,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “But Donald Trump is so exceptional. We hear and see so much about him that he has almost become a presence in domestic British politics.”
Public attitudes toward Trump have not softened during his presidency. In a poll of Briton’s attitudes toward foreign leaders by research group YouGov, only 19 percent of those surveyed said they had a positive opinion of Trump; 67 percent said they had a negative opinion, and 13 percent were neutral.
That places him behind George W Bush and Pakistan’s president, Imran Khan, but ahead of President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Former president Barack Obama remains by far the most popular foreign leader, with 73 percent of people saying they had a positive opinion of him.
As polarising as Trump is, some skeptics said they doubted Labour would get much mileage out of making him an issue, given that voters ultimately decide based on things that matter to them personally.
“I don’t know how successful Corbyn will be in associating Boris with Trump — or even how damaging it would be to the Conservatives,” said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States. “Remember, Trump is still a good deal less unpopular in the UK than in other European countries, except perhaps Poland and Hungary.”
In Israel, where Trump remains very popular, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed himself to the president during his campaign and fared poorly, and Trump has since shown less affection for his erstwhile friend.
That fickleness was on display again last week, when he called in to a radio show hosted by the ardent pro-Brexit leader, Nigel Farage. Trump told him that the withdrawal deal Johnson negotiated with the European Union would preclude a trade agreement between Britain and the United States.
That struck a discordant note, in that Johnson has promoted his Brexit policy by saying it would open the door to a lucrative deal with Washington. Last weekend, he felt compelled to say in an interview that Trump was “patently in error.”
On that score, at least, the White House’s characterisation of the Wednesday phone call could be seen as helping Johnson. It seemed to suggest that Trump was no longer troubled by his deal with Brussels and was looking forward to their future negotiations.
The fact that Johnson’s aides chose to ignore that, and play up his demand that Trump drop tariffs on British exports suggests they are focused more on voters in Scotland, as well as England’s north, where the Conservatives are targeting Labour loyalists who voted to leave the European Union.
Whether in the phone call or the Farage interview, Trump’s remarks have been tailor-made for Corbyn, who said recently that the president was interfering “to get his friend Boris Johnson elected.” The president’s comments did not sit well with Farage’s listeners either, who bombarded him with complaints that he should not have given Trump a platform.
“You were crying about how the Americans should not interfere in British political decisions,” said a listener from Essex who identified himself as Jason, “and yet, here you are sitting with him on your show.”
Several callers alluded to an episode in April 2016 when Obama, on a visit to London, warned Britons that if they voted to leave the European Union, their country would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal with Washington. Obama’s remark, which came at the request of then prime minister David Cameron, was widely judged to have backfired.
“Obama broke with precedent, and it’s now open season on leaders commenting on other countries,” Farage said to his aggrieved listeners. “And it’s just how it seems to work, right or wrong.”
Mark Landler and Stephen Castle c.2019 The New York Times
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