President Trump speaks to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May passes during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017
I am back in London, in the place I grew up, and to me it feels like the country is being set up to snap like a twig.
For three years now, the British political system has been sliced to pieces by the impossibility of implementing a Brexit that delivers on the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union (EU), and does so in a way that doesn’t destroy the country’s economy and transform the U.K.’s pound into a vulnerable, soft currency.
Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May presides over a coalition government reliant on hardline Irish Unionists to preserve a slim parliamentary majority. Because any exit from the EU will make Britain’s dealings with southern Ireland — which will still be in the EU — vastly more difficult, and because Northern and Southern Ireland have free movement of people and goods across their border, how to deal with that border became a huge sticking point.
The Unionists felt May’s government was going along with EU demands that would effectively bring Northern Ireland closer to its independent neighbor to the south, and weaken its bonds with the rest of the U.K. Meanwhile, anti-Brexit Conservative Party moderates feared the terms of the deal would leave Britain neither in nor fully out of the EU. And the other parties in Parliament — notably the Labour, Liberal and Scottish Nationalist parties — are deeply suspicious of the entire concept of Brexit and of the broader Conservative agenda on social spending, civil liberties and immigration.
The result? Three years of political immobilization and one parliamentary defeat after another after another for Prime Minister May’s government.
In normal circumstances, May would have had to resign years ago, her government brought down by momentous parliamentary revolts against her central policy platform — delivering on Brexit. But, under the abnormal circumstances that Britain is now swathed in, with a public catastrophically divided over the country’s future, and with both major political parties in utter turmoil, it took three years for her tottering premiership to finally come to an end. Finally, however, after the European Parliament election results in May, in which the newly formed Brexit Party took one-third of the vote and the Conservative and Labour votes imploded, the prime minister announced that she would step down once a new Conservative Party leader was chosen.Trump is a predator and a carnivore; he knows how to go in for the kill, and he knows how to humiliate an “ally” before that final act.
Two weeks from now, the Conservative Party’s hard-core grassroots members will finish choosing the next leader of their party — which, in practical terms, means the next prime minister. Despite the fact that a slew of polls show that a slim majority of the population now favors remaining in the EU, the logic of the moment makes it almost inevitable that the governing party will veer far to the right. It will do so not because the country as a whole occupies that political space, but because its base has, much like the Republican Party’s in the United States, fallen for the demagogic messages of nationalists, for the faux nostalgia of imperialists longing for those days of yore when the sun never set on the British Empire.
They will, if the polls are to be believed, choose right-wing Boris Johnson, the one-time mayor of London and erstwhile foreign secretary, who has risen like a phoenix from his political ashes to perch now on the edge of supreme power. Johnson is far to the right on economic and social policy, and utterly opportunistic when it comes to Europe — waffling on which side he would back in the referendum until he concluded he had more political capital to gain by supporting the Brexiteers. Since then, he has, like Trump, created a political persona based far more around bluff than reality. If and when Britain finds itself led by this man, the country will have entered its version of the MAGA years, its political leaders selling a snake-oil potion to voters by promising to somehow “Make Britain Great Again” through embracing an anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-regulatory agenda that has virtually no grounding in economic or political realities.
If this scenario comes to pass, Johnson will arrive at 10 Downing Street committed to Britain leaving the EU, with or without a deal, by the end of October. He has promised to go for a no-deal if he doesn’t get a renegotiated Brexit deal from the 27 other member states of the European Union, and to do so despite the fact that Britain’s business community is overwhelmingly opposed to this prospect; despite the fact that Parliament has already voted to prevent a no-deal Brexit; and despite the fact that at least 30 Conservative MPs have already promised to rebel if he were to try to do so.
Oxford-educated, erudite and an at-times entertaining speaker, Johnson appears on the surface to have nothing in common with the crass, thug-like Trump. Scratch that surface, however, and they are very much birds of a feather. Like Trump’s agenda, Johnson’s agenda is deeply oligarchic: It relies on cutting the tax base to the bone, on chopping away at any and all red tape, and on “freeing” the market in ways that will eviscerate the social safety net. And like Trump, Johnson also works to persuade working people to buy into policies that will inflict economic hurt upon their own communities by playing on the xenophobic mob sentiment of his base and through demonizing the supranational European project embodied in the EU and its free movement of people and of goods.In normal times, no U.K. government would accept such humiliating treatment.
Johnson will come to power in a country more politically isolated and damaged than at any time since the early dogdays of World War II. Having squandered all good will within Europe, he will be forced, as I wrote for Truthout last month, to bow down before pretty much every aberrant act and gesture and opinion of Trump’s America. Trump is a predator and a carnivore; he knows how to go in for the kill, and he knows how to humiliate an “ally” before that final act. He gets off on making people beg for mercy.
That is what Trump’s otherwise unfathomable Twitter storms on Monday and Tuesday were really about. Responding to leaked confidential cables — in which the U.K. ambassador to the U.S. labeled Trump inept, incompetent, his administration abnormal and dysfunctional, and Trump himself as likely to end up disgraced — Trump not only attacked the ambassador in extraordinarily personal and vicious terms, but issued a broadside against Theresa May herself. He declared the U.S. government would no longer work with the U.K. ambassador, and reveled in the fact that Britain would soon have a new prime minister (this despite her probable successor, Johnson, himself having slammed Trump in 2015 as being stupifyingly ignorant and unfit to be president.)
The clear implication of Monday’s Twitter storm was that Trump would have a say in who Britain’s new leader would be, and that he would then dictate who Britain would send to Washington, D.C., as its new ambassador.
Again, in normal times, no U.K. government would accept such humiliating treatment. The public would demand they stand firm; Parliament would expect that they resist such infringements from an “ally”; cabinet members would line up to denounce the inappropriateness, the offensiveness of Trump’s diktat. But, in these times of withered British potential, in these times when opportunists rule the roost, it’s more than likely Britain’s new leaders, preoccupied to the point of obsession with Brexit, will indulge even these extraordinary Trumpian demands.It’s now probable that the next British ambassador to the United States will in practice be hand-picked by Donald J. Trump.
In the Conservative Party’s televised leadership debate on Tuesday, Boris Johnson repeatedly refused to back Ambassador Darroch; within 24 hours, the ambassador had concluded he had no choice but to resign. It’s now probable that the next British ambassador to the United States will in practice be hand-picked by Donald J. Trump. This is a humiliation ritual no country in modern diplomatic history has had to endure; it has echoes of Hitler forcing the Austrian prime minister to resign so that he could install one who would go along with his annexation of the subordinated country. It is, quite arguably, the greatest diplomatic humiliation the British foreign service has suffered since the Munich conference that handed over Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.
Imagining the reverse — the U.K.’s leaders publicly denouncing the White House, publicly declaring the American ambassador to be persona non grata, and essentially ordering Washington to find a more suitable diplomat for the post — is entirely unthinkable. It’s an exercise in absurdism. U.S. leaders can’t even fathom the limits on sovereignty implied by the existence of an International Criminal Court; there’s no way in hell they would accept other countries determining U.S. diplomatic personnel. Yet, so desperate will be the U.K.’s next leaders to secure American friendship in the face of a potentially economically calamitous Brexit that they will likely swallow all the fecal matter Trump decides to send their way, smile, and say how wonderful it tastes.
It all fills me with a terrible sadness. There is something so very, very squalid about this state of affairs, and something so entirely self-defeating about Britain’s rush to turn friends into foes and to exchange the open society for a world of walls. And looming over it all, there is something so impossibly cruel about the predatory responses of Trump’s United States.