When Donald Trump first became US President, he called Theresa May “My Maggie,” seemingly hoping that she would be Thatcher to his Reagan and the two held hands as they walked along the colonnade at the Whitehouse. Then it all turned sour at the start of this year when Trump cancelled his visit to the UK in disgust at America’s £750 million new embassy in south London which he described as a “bad deal” marooned in an “off location.”
His outburst on Twitter read: “Reason I cancelled [sic] my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!” Although there was more than a hint the US President wasn’t terribly keen at the prospect of a visit that would have attracted sizeable public protests.
But now all seems rosy again following some warm exchanges at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Trump predicted a “tremendous increase” in UK-US trade and said the US and UK were “joined at the hip” on military matters, while Mrs May said they stood “shoulder to shoulder” in facing shared threats. So, it seems the treasured relationship is back on track and Trump might, after all, decide to visit London later this year, with a renewed commitment to trade a welcome piece of news ahead of Brexit negotiations.
But problems mount for the PM back home
Mrs May will have been relieved to escape to the snow and fondue at Davos as criticism of her leadership and handling of Brexit grows back home. The UK pound may have climbed above $1.40 dollars and the Tories may have pulled level with Labour in the polls, but backbench unrest is on the rise. The Sun’s Harry Cole reports that backbench 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady was “ashen faced” at the prospect of “one more letter” demanding a vote of no confidence in the PM.
Under party rules, a vote is automatically triggered once 15% of the party (48 MPs) supports one. In September, the number was estimated in the thirties, but could it now be in the 40s? After a reshuffle that was remembered for all the wrong reasons the PM’s defensive or offensive is limited. Boris Johnson strayed from his briefing to criticise NHS funding this week and Sir Nicholas Soames, normally a government loyalist, branded May’s vision as “dulldulldull.” The weakness of Mrs May’s position of course has implications for her dealings with European leaders, but the growing consensus among Tory ranks that the domestic agenda is unambitious is highly problematic. Tony Blair reappeared in the Evening Standard this week, noting among other things that Mrs May appears to consider it her duty to deliver Brexit. That may be true, but the PM could also do with some bigger irons in the fire at home.
Return of the Mogg
The Brixiteers have so far been fairly quiet in Westminster. The announcement of a two-year transition period that many of them thought was unnecessary wasn’t met with uproar. No one seemed to mind about the payments of up to £40bn to the EU for the “divorce bill” and there was little protest at the European Court of Justice having some ongoing role in relation to the rights of EU nationals. Even the inclusion of full regulatory alignment as a fall-back position for Ireland did not trigger much of a response. But has Theresa May finally pushed the Brexiteers over the edge?
On Thursday, new head of the European Reform Group Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the UK negotiations of being “cowed by the EU” and warned against Brexit being treated like a “damage limitation exercise,” adding for good measure that people “did not vote for the management of decline.” Earlier in the week during a Brexit Select Committee evidence session, the Mogg told Brexit Secretary David Davis that Britain would become a “vassal state” during the two-year implementation period if it continued to abide by EU rules and pay into the budget. “This is a big shift in policy,” the Mogg protested. “It sounds like two more years under the Brussels yoke” he exclaimed. The Mogg has a lot of sway with the Tory grassroots (he is now the bookmakers' favourite to become the next Tory leader) and a significant media profile. As Michael Spicer notes in the Daily Telegraph today it is the Mogg and the European Reform Group who are the real Brexit watchdogs now.
Before the 2016 EU referendum, David Cameron (remember him?) said: "Don't throw away your job, don't throw away your children's futures, don't throw away the strength and future of our country." This week the former PM was filmed admitting Brexit “turned out less badly than we first thought” and Britain leaving the EU is “not a disaster.” The remarks were made to the billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in Davos.
In footage highlighted by Five News, Mr Cameron said: "(Brexit) is frustrating. As I keep saying, it's a mistake not a disaster. "It's turned out less badly than we first thought. But it's still going to be difficult." Cameron’s words hardly reveal an epiphany in that he clearly acknowledges the negotiation period will be hard work. He’s yet to embrace the cheery optimism of David Davis who is expected to declare today that the UK will be able to strike its own trade deals with countries like China and Brazil despite seeking to keep tariff-free access to Europe.
Neighbours at war
When Boris Johnson stepped out of his lane to demand more cash for the NHS, he got what can only be described as a kicking in the weekly Cabinet meeting. The Chancellor wasn’t even there but jumped on the bandwagon, remarking that BoJo is the Foreign Secretary – simultaneously stating the obvious and making clear that Mr Johnson’s advice on spending was about as welcome as that from John McDonnell.
Apparently, what goes around comes around, and it’s Mr Hammond who’s next to receive the Downing Street put down. Speaking to the CBI at Davos, the Chancellor predicted a “very modest” changes to the relationship with the EU post-Brexit. Cue the PM’s spokesperson insisting modest changes weren’t on the agenda, while Mr Hammond himself was ‘encouraged’ to send a couple of tweets reiterating the UK is leaving the single market and customs union. Also known as pretty big changes.
At least Mr Hammond stayed rather closer to his lane than the Foreign Secretary. But his intervention risks reopening Cabinet divisions over negotiations with the EU. And it hardly supports the already embattled Prime Minister.
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