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Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
A statement issued by Buckingham Palace on Tuesday confirmed that Donald Trump and Melania Trump have accepted an invitation from the Queen to pay a State Visit to the United Kingdom from Monday June 3rd to Wednesday June 5th. Woodrow Wilson became the first president to visit London in an official capacity in 1918, and President Trump will become the latest.
Trump is expected to hold talks with the Prime Minister in Downing Street during the visit and will join D-Day events in Portsmouth. It is also thought that Buckingham Palace will host a state banquet for the President and the First Lady. He will then travel on to France for a series of commemorative events.
It continues a long tradition of Royal engagement with the leaders of the free world. The Queen has hosted two state visits, welcoming George W. Bush in 2003 and Barack Obama in 2011. Dwight Eisenhower (1959); John F.Kennedy (June 1961); Richard Nixon (1969); Ronald Reagan (1982); George Bush Snr (1989); and Bill Clinton (1995 and 2000) all attended events hosted by the Royal Family that fell short of the pomp and ceremony of a State Visit. That honour will now be bestowed on the Trump White House. But how will Downing Street handle what will be an unpredictable and at times prickly affair?
Speaker Bercow takes his role in the latest Westminster drama
Fresh from his Brexit interventions, Speaker Bercow is once again a leading protagonist in the drama of Westminster politics. The Speaker is one of three officials who must authorise an address in Westminster Hall, alongside the Lord Speaker and the Lord Great Chamberlain.
In 2017, when a visit by Trump to the UK was first mooted, the Speaker said: “our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important” and that an address to both Houses of Parliament is “not an automatic right, it is an earned honour”.
But even if Bercow blocks the use of Westminster Hall, he cannot prevent the President from addressing Parliament entirely. Trump could address the Royal Gallery, as happened during Reagan’s visit in 1982. In the absence of a volte-face from the Speaker (which is far from expected should it benefit the Government) a personal snub on behalf of the Commons will cause Downing Street embarrassment. But based on the extent to which this president values personal relationships, a personal affront could cause more lasting damage than just that.
The importance of the Anglo-American alliance outweighs the unpopularity of Trump and Mrs May
The announcement of Trump’s visit has been met with predictable levels of indignation and resentment. Whether it is this administration’s policy on family separation at the US/Mexico border or its doubtful approach to climate science, there are no shortage of policy issues for activists to protes about.
That is well within their right – and they will need no encouragement to do so on the streets of London when the president is in town. But for institutions such as Parliament, the visit should serve as a timely reminder that the Special Relationship outlasts any individual President or Prime Minister. Trump and Theresa May might well be the current respective heads of government, but the US-UK alliance will endure long beyond their tenures.
Short of the warmth that encapsulated the Reagan/Thatcher relationship, on a pragmatic level these two leaders need each other. May – and indeed her successor – must continue to pursue a US-UK Free Trade Agreement as one of the deliverable benefits of Brexit, at a time when the process of decoupling ourselves from Brussels is showing few signs of progress.
Trump has never hidden his dislike for the European Union and its sovereignty-sapping institutions. As a result, the UK remains an important bridge over the Atlantic, even as our influence amongst member states fades. That presents a growing opportunity, especially in defence policy, for Paris to grow closer to Washington. This helps to explain why Gérard Araud, the outgoing French Ambassador to Washington, said this week that “The UK has vanished. The British ambassador told me — and I loved it — that every time the British military is meeting with the American military, the Americans are talking about the French.”
Those two subjects – trade and defence – will likely form the basis of talks between Trump and May in their political meetings in London. There is political good will on both sides of the Atlantic for a US-UK Free Trade Agreement but, whereas the Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress when Trump last visited the UK, a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives now means likely obstruction to a deal. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the country, illustrated this point last week when she said a US-UK trade deal was “just not on the cards if there’s any harm done to the Good Friday accords”.
Differing approaches to handling the growing prominence of China in economic and security matters will also be key. May’s government has just approved the supply of equipment by Huawei to the UK’s new 5G data network, despite security warnings. Trump, who has made taking a firm line with China on intellectual property and trade a key plank of his foreign policy, wants its ‘Five Eyes’ allies (UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) to exclude the company.
There are a series of potential banana skins for Downing Street throughout the State Visit. The size of the crowds protesting about the President will be at the top of list for both the British and American delegations: recall that, in 2017, Mr Trump reportedly said he would not return to the UK until he was sure of getting a “better reception”. The script will be unwritten, and Downing Street will be nervous about the President’s typically erratic behaviour in press conferences. We can expect to see Mrs May looking nervously at her lectern, especially given past comments by Trump about the suitability of Boris Johnson as a future Prime Minister – her most likely replacement according to this website’s current surveys.
But beyond all the likely risks, what should underpin this State Visit is a strong relationship between two of the world’s best connected and most powerful allies. There is no better opportunity for this Government to show the world that Global Britain is ready and raring to go.