Still in the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, Prime Minister Theresa May decided she’d go and find out what is left of Britain and America’s ‘special relationship’.
If the White House spelling the PM’s name wrong multiple times is anything to go on, then you’d have to say ‘not much’.
May’s speech in Washington has generally been well received on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, the mere fact that she’s there as the first foreign leader to meet Trump left me feeling a bit queasy.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first response to Trump’s election was to remind him of shared values of democracy and respect for human dignity, May has been quick to fall into the arms of the US president.
America and Britain can lead the world once again, May claims as if referring to an idyllic past.
Yet all these nice sentiments are easily shattered once you’re back to reality and ask that one vital question: Who needs a US-UK trade agreement more?
We’ve all heard British ministers make all sorts of claims about the EU needing Britain more than the other way around.
I highly dispute that, but when it comes to American-British trade relations I think we can all agree it’s Britain who needs a deal more.
Given that President Trump has probably by now trademarked the phrase ‘America First’, he’s expected to impose various protectionist measures to protect US industries.
Trump’s already pulled the US out of TPP and so there’s reason to believe he’ll only be prepared to sign new trade deals if they clearly benefit US companies.
That means the UK government can be expecting uncomfortable demands.
When asked if May could guarantee the NHS would be kept out of the negotiations, 10 Downing Street gave an evasive answer.
Understandable, considering that trade talks have yet to start. It’s also a bit unsettling because deep down we may already know what’s going to happen.
Assuming that the UK government even wants to protect the NHS from US companies, you might wonder if May has the leverage or the political courage to make it a line in the sand.
Can Britain afford to walk away from a deal if the Americans refuse to budge?
Then after it’s signed a deal with the US that could well contain parts Britain’s not particularly happy about, it still needs to go to other countries.
“The UK will be put in a vulnerable position precisely when other nations start opportunistically demanding lower industrial standards,” Ian Dunt writes in his book Brexit. What The Hell Happens Now?
China, India, Canada might all want different things out of a deal that Britain’s equally reluctant to give. Dunt gives the example of India, which will probably be asking for concessions on immigration.
“Indian students often find it hard to come to the UK and that has not become any easier since May’s crackdown on student visas,” he writes.
“Despite all the talk of cutting immigration, UK negotiators will come under strain to make concessions to Indian requests in return for a trade deal.”
Again, will Britain be in a position to refuse?
Ever since the referendum, politicians have tried their best to read as narrow a conclusion from the result as possible.
Britons voted to leave the EU and that’s all we are meant to read into the result.
I don’t think it’s the whole story and interpreting it only in this light could have grave consequences.
“Above all, whatever was printed on the ballot paper, the question large numbers of voters heard, and the reply they gave, was nothing to do with the European Union,” Lord Ashcroft writes in his book on the EU referendum, Well You Did Ask.
He makes a good case for why we should be focusing less on the vote itself and more on the reasons why people voted the way they did.
“People tried to wrestle with such facts as were available, and to make sense of the competing promises and claims. But ultimately, the question many saw was: ‘Are you happy with the way things are and the way they seem to be going?’ And their answer was: ‘Well, since you ask… no’.”
There’s no denying that many people believed leaving the EU would lead to an extra £350 million a week going to the NHS.
Why else would the Leave campaign put it on a bus?
We’ve all seen what happened to the Liberal Democrats after they promised free education and ended up in a government that tripled fees.
Is there any reason to believe people would take a massive betrayal of their trust regarding the NHS any more lightly?
People were genuinely upset when politicians backtracked on the ‘let’s fund the NHS’ promise hours after the result was final. Imagine the backlash when people find out the NHS will now be sold off behind closed doors.
Downing Street has stated that “the NHS will never be part of a trade deal and will always remain free at the point of delivery”.
How much will that statement be worth when the US puts the screws on the British government?