Theresa May made little effort to conceal her boredom long before she neared the halfway mark. Her voice became even more of a robotic monotone, her expression near dead.
She’d hoped her speech on foreign policy in the Middle East and Britain’s exciting post-Brexit trading opportunities with Jordan would re-establish her as a global player, but since no one else was showing the slightest interest in what she was saying, why should she? Her audience only became animated when she said the words “in conclusion”.
Having reached the end, the prime minister waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, the first question was on hate crime and Donald Trump. Theresa took a deep breath, trying to wipe the past from her mind. If only she hadn’t allowed herself to get so upset about Nigel Farage and Michael Gove getting to the US president before her that she had rushed to Washington to offer him a state visit, not to mention a clammy hand, then it would have been so much easier to sound tough. After hedging round the issue, she finally got round to saying – somewhat timidly – that she wasn’t afraid to call out the president when he got it wrong. Could we move on now?
No. Because thereafter, the entire press pack piled in with variations on the Trump theme. But he tweeted you in the middle of the night to say you were wrong to have a go at him, one reporter observed. “I have made my position clear on the tweets I have seen from President Trump,” she replied somewhat techily. Except she hadn’t. She had only made her position clear on the first of Trump’s tweets. She had deliberately not said anything about his second incendiary tweet. Don’t go there, Theresa, she told herself. Pretend it never happened. You’re not powerful enough to criticise the president twice in one day.
“We have a long-term special relationship with the USA,” Theresa continued. So special that a racist, Islamophobic president was free to say almost anything he liked, even to the wrong Twitter account, and Britain would only rebuke him in the mildest possible way. Anything to avoid a diplomatic incident. Theresa just wasn’t the kind of person who liked upsetting people. Other than George Osborne.
How about the state visit, then? Surely the president wasn’t a fit leader to meet the Queen? “We’ve extended the invitation and it’s been accepted,” Theresa replied through clenched teeth. It would be far too embarrassing to withdraw it. And besides, Britain might not get such a good trade deal with the US if we did. Not that Trump had ever offered anyone a good deal. All she could hope was that the Queen might suddenly find her diary was so full for the next three years that the date might slip. This year, next year, some time, never.
The longer the press conference went on, the more brittle Theresa became. Staccato, one-line answers to questions she hadn’t been asked. How did she feel about the president’s personal attacks on her? “I am not a prolific tweeter,” she replied. Pure Maybot. Her discomfort was only slightly eased by the knowledge that Trump’s unhelpful tweets had saved her from having to answer any awkward questions on the Brexit bill. Small mercies.
There had been rather more of a robust attack on the US president in the House of Commons earlier in the day, when the home secretary was called to answer an urgent question from Labour’s Stephen Doughty. Amber Rudd maintained much the same line as the prime minister, but she wasn’t nearly so shy about making plain her obvious dislike of Trump. Even as she said the offer of a state visit had been made and accepted, her voice dripped with contempt. There was no grass long enough for the visit to be kicked into. If she had her way, she’d make the call to the White House herself.
This still wasn’t good enough for many MPs from both sides of the house. Labour’s Khalid Mahmood observed that if a Muslim hate preacher could be banned from entry to the UK, why did the same rules not apply to the US president? Chris Bryant pointed out that this hadn’t been a one-off. Trump was a serial offender when it came to tweeting offensive material, so a state visit couldn’t go ahead.
The longer the session went on, the more extraordinary it became. Never before has an American president been described in parliament as a “Nazi”, “fascist” and “hate speaker” without a word of dissent. Not least from the home secretary. It was a day when parliament showed the leadership the prime minister couldn’t.
- John Crace’s new book, I, Maybot, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £6.99, saving £3,go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
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