During the press conference, the Jordanians cheered as May firmly refused to condone Trump’s Tweet. Meanwhile, back in Westminster, MPs on both sides of the house lined up to say, ‘enough is enough’. Senior British diplomat and Ambassador to America, Sir Kim Darroch, using, may I add, appropriate diplomatic channels, has made Britain’s views quite clear to the White House. This has been a rather sad day indeed, for both of our great nations, and has left many in Britain, like me, wishing there was some way we could exhume the Great Ronald to replace the Dreaded Donald.
By Alexandra Phillips l December 1, 2017
King Abdullah II of Jordan meets with British Prime Minster Theresa May
LONDON-I would imagine when an advisor told Prime Minister Theresa May about the media furore back home surrounding the American President’s seeming endorsement of notorious and controversial political group ‘Britain First’ via retweet there would have been little more than an eyebrow twitch. It would hardly be the first time the digital exuberance of America’s Diplomacy-By-Twitter President had made a major cultural faux-pas. It rather feels as though we are living through an episode of cult British comedy noir ‘Black Mirror’ at times, whose fictional portrayal of a British Prime Minister being made by rabid social media pressure to fellate a pig came as an eerie portent to then Prime Minister David Cameron’s own embarrassing peccadillo involving a dead porcine head as part of a drunken University initiation practice.
But sitting in Jordan as part of a major state visit to the Middle East to strengthen diplomatic and trading relations ahead of Brexit, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Trying to butter up long standing allies at the centre of the Muslim world, while your other long standing ally goes on a bit of a perceived Islamophobic social media bender is not ideal. And to make matters worse, the leader of the free world retweeted a likely soon-to-be proscribed controversial organisation, whose toxic nomenclature had reportedly been shouted by a far right lunatic who shot three times and repeatedly stabbed to death young, married Labour MP Jo Cox in shocking scenes just before the 23 June 2016 UK Brexit Referendum. The accuracy of contradictory eye-witness statements about what killer Thomas Mair actually shouted, if anything, as he slayed in cold blood a young mother and well liked politician in utterly harrowing scenes matters little. Mair had a long history of online fascination with organisations such as the KKK and ‘Britain First’ who I am certain the vast majority of right-headed right wingers would also strongly condemn without hesitation.
So, the Downing Street operation had a delicate situation to handle. Domestic media was poised to hang, draw, and quarter a Prime Minister, all too easily and wrongly labeled as weak, for anything short of outright condemnation of the Twitter faux pas. But tetchy Trump is also a man not known for his openness to criticism.
A statement was hastily issued by a ‘spokesman’ calling the act of retweeting simply ‘wrong’ and instead turning focus on ‘Britain First’ as an organisation who far from represent British values and pose a very real threat to social harmony. Well played, I thought. Theresa May herself said nothing to criticise her key ally, while the communications machinery of Number Ten sought to underline the importance of the ‘special relationship’. Crisis averted, and given the already rabid clamour surrounding the proposed state visit of Mr Trump to the UK in the future, I doubted very much that this latest incident would actually change anything in the current cultural climate. Sadly, I spoke too soon. That conclusion was based upon a pragmatic assumption that the President himself would be cautiously advised to step back on the issue.
Instead, the most surprising and frankly ludicrous response followed, as the American President like an injured bear turned on the British Prime Minister grizzling and snarling as if he had been directly and personally provoked.
Had someone gently reminded the man about the brutal murder of a UK politician but a year and a half ago, you may expect them to realise they had inadvertently plunged a key ally into a very sticky situation indeed and diplomatically step back. But any animal that has been relentlessly baited, provoked and attacked is going to have a very fraught relationship with humans. It would seem the American President is no different.
Attacking Theresa May on her record in countering terrorism in the UK (a country that is America’s closest partner on foreign security issues and a nation with some of the most advanced intelligence services in the world, foiling on average one terrorist attack per week) was revealing. The leader of one of the world’s biggest global players and long-term ally to the United States had been absurdly pushed into the firing line. Nobody in the UK was impressed. Not even previously vocal defenders such as TV firebrand Piers Morgan, once committed stalwart against Trump detractors both sides of the pond. Even my old boss Nigel Farage has been unusually quiet on the matter, his own party UKIP was always unhesitating in kicking out any member or activist who retweeted ‘Britain First’. Platinum haired long-lost twin Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Secretary, himself no stranger to loose-lipped blunders creating diplomatic storms, was clear about his condemnation of the American President, too. The one major national leader who had quietly and resolutely stood by Trump as others lazily joined the troops of virtue signallers swayed by poll ratings and trial by media to use the American President as a popular punch bag, was now alienated.
As Theresa May held a press conference in Jordan, the question wasn’t how successful Britain’s diplomatic relations in the Middle East were. An entire state trip had been flagrantly ruined by not one, but two ridiculous tweets by a so-called ally. Yet, she handled the hyped-up hacks with sweet aplomb, showing Trump how it should be done. No, she wouldn’t climb down on condemning the retweeting and thus giving a major platform to 40 million followers (now no doubt half the planet) of an organisation in the UK loathed by all decent minded citizens. But equally, she wouldn’t be cajoled into any personal criticism of the American President, or posturing exhibition of synthetic offense, and firmly stuck to her guns that the state visit had been offered and accepted months before, once again polishing and displaying the words ‘special relationship’ despite, no doubt, rather thinking her American counterpart was more ‘special needs’.
But that is how you do diplomacy. In the same way as most humans go about ordinary day-to-day relationships, trying to read body language cues and knowing when to proffer an apology when a mishap occurs, albeit even if it was wholly accidental, international relations should also be mindful of national sensitivities and humble in addressing unintentional consequences.
Yet, it has become clear that “The Donald” is not an ordinary person, and so perhaps every rule book on international diplomacy must be rewritten to accommodate this rather obstinate and prickly world leader. Perhaps Number 10’s press team should have read the psychology of the man and offered an easy out by stating that clearly the President had not realised quite whose propaganda he had advocated, and would no doubt not wish to offend the British. Perhaps. Or, perhaps it is time that even the closest of friends needs to say when lines have been crossed. The escalation of placing Home Secretary Amber Rudd in front of Parliament to address fellow MPs in an emergency debate on said tweet, and her reiteration that ‘no date had been set’ on the proposed State visit, suggests a UK beginning to tire of their embarrassing American ally, and clear suggestion that the relationship may well be on the rocks, which is not ideal for Britain as she wishes to extend her global presence as we leave the European Union.
During the press conference, the Jordanians cheered as May firmly refused to condone Trump’s Tweet. Meanwhile, back in Westminster, MPs on both sides of the house lined up to say, ‘enough is enough’. Senior British diplomat and Ambassador to America, Sir Kim Darroch, using, may I add, appropriate diplomatic channels, has made Britain’s views quite clear to the White House.
It is the first time in my mind that any such fissure has existed between our two nations since the American Civil War, as we have stood shoulder-to-shoulder through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Iraq and Afghanistan, even when our leaders have come from polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.
This has been a rather sad day indeed, for both of our great nations, and has left many in Britain, like me, wishing there was some way we could exhume the Great Ronald to replace the Dreaded Donald.
Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.