Theresa May gets Trumped in London

by Andrew Anthony / 23 July, 2018

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Protest against Donald Trump in London on July 13. Photo/Getty Images

Protest against Donald Trump in London in July. Photo/Getty Images

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Notwithstanding the blimp, the presidential visit proved a deflating experience in the home of football.

So football didn’t, in the end, come home. Instead, London received a different July visitor, no less newsworthy but a good deal less welcome. With impeccable bad timing, Donald Trump, the man, his luminescent haircut and a flock of giant Osprey helicopters arrived in town the day after England were knocked out of the World Cup in a nail-biting and, at points, heart-stopping semi-final.

For a month of the most glorious summer in living memory, the chant that football was coming home had filled the airwaves and the public spaces where large sweltering crowds gathered to watch matches on huge screens. While politicians were busy organising a national identity crisis under the guise of the interminable Brexit paralysis, England’s young footballers, led by a humble and eloquent manager, Gareth Southgate, managed to restore a sense of pride and hope in a people mired in pessimism.

For as long as the team kept winning and the sun kept shining, it seemed as if this hopelessly divided country could unite under a shared dream.

And then the plucky Croats scored in extra time and once more we were two tribes, and not even with better suntans, because we’d been inside for weeks watching the football on telly.

The floppy-mopped foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who was to international diplomacy what Arnold Schwarzenegger is to flower arranging, had already resigned following the resignation of David Davies, the man who was theoretically in charge of negotiating Britain’s exit from Europe. To say that the Government was in disarray would be to indulge in the most emolliating understatement. Prime Minister Theresa May wore the haunted expression of a headmistress who isn’t sure if any of her staff are going to turn up for work.

Into this scene of feverish turmoil stepped Trump with the glee of an arsonist who’d just come across a ready-built pyre. He didn’t waste time igniting debate. After extolling Johnson’s virtues, he announced that May’s compromise Brexit plan – which is so complicated few experts can understand it, let alone the non-reading Trump – would jeopardise a US-UK trade deal. The visit could not have got off to a worse start for May if Trump had goosed the Queen and called for Nigel Farrage to become Prime Minister.

No slave to tradition, Trump did in fact walk in front of the Queen at a parade and then shared with reporters their private conversation. In the fusty world of British royal protocol, this was a sin almost as egregious as a goosing.

There was no parade for the England football team, which went on to lose in the third-place play-off, but there was one for Trump. The Women’s March through central London was billed as a “carnival of resistance” and featured Bianca Jagger, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, an orange “baby Trump” blimp and tens of thousands of marchers carrying placards with such deathless legends as “How dare you combover here”.

In many respects it was also a fanfare of virtue signalling. As critics noted, there were no mass protests when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man with a far more disturbing record on human rights, visited a few months earlier. Trump is the clown demagogue, the vulgar celebrity-politician who’s a crowd-pleasing hate figure.

By any reckoning, his brief sojourn in the UK was a political and public relations disaster. But perhaps more for May than the man himself, who seemed to relish every second of it. She had wanted to ride football’s wave of national good feeling but in the process found herself all too rudely Trumped.

Andrew Anthony is an Observer feature writer and is married to a New Zealander.

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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