You Brexit, You Buy It
This political positioning seemed brilliant: the Tories would go along with her gestures to the Left, it was thought, because the alternative was the beardy socialist Corbyn, and her economic protectionism would attract millions of disgruntled voters in the old Labour heartlands. But then it failed, and May’s vision of Brexit suddenly looked out of touch. All of May’s leftward nods on the economy couldn’t make the Tories look as if they really cared about those “left behind” by globalization. It’s worth remembering that David Cameron tried and failed to brand himself a “Red Tory,” because nobody believed him either. Any hopes that Brexit could be the vehicle through which Britain might push back against the global populist surge have been dashed. The antipolitics momentum is now entirely with Jeremy Corbyn and the hard Left.
Before June 8, May’s real ace card against Europe was Donald Trump. It was well known that Trump considered Brexit to be “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” and that he disliked the EU, which he regards as little more than a protection racket for German manufacturing. After reaching the White House, Trump moved quickly to scrap the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership, which President Obama had reached with Europe. Obama had said that under Brexit, Britain would be “in the back of the queue” in any future trade deals with the world’s biggest economy. Trump said Britain would be first, and told the London Times that he wanted to strike a free-trade agreement “very quickly.” As Britain began the complicated and expensive process of disentangling itself from the European Union, America’s new commander in chief seemed to be the answer to every Brexiteer’s prayers. Trump would not only support Britain; it was hoped that he would make life harder for Germany and the EU, and therefore weaken their positions in Brexit talks.
May seized on this apparent diplomatic opportunity. While the rest of the world was still gawping at the unreality of a Trump presidency, she became the first world leader to meet him in the White House. She even let him hold her hand, much to the disgust of the British left, which held protests in Westminster and screamed “Theresa the appeaser!”
May further obtained Trump’s reassurances that he fully supported NATO, which she hoped would show anxious Europeans that, in the new postliberal West, she could play the part of Thatcher to Trump’s Reagan. Trump, for his part, reiterated that Brexit was “a wonderful thing.” And again in July, Trump promised Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, a “major trade deal” which would be “very big & exciting.”
But now Trump’s presidency appears to be unraveling even more dramatically than May’s premiership. Steve Bannon, a great Brexit enthusiast, is no longer in the White House, and the new, general-dominated administration is less inclined towards populist nationalism, and more towards a multilateral view of world affairs. Should May have put so much faith in so tempestuous a figure as Trump? It is in the British character to exaggerate the fondness Americans have for their mother country. The truth is that Brits feel desperately nervous about their Brexit future, which is why they clung to the hope that Uncle Sam (in the unlikely shape of Trump) would save them, so that they could go back to fun things, like arguing about legs and inappropriate newspaper headlines. So far, however, neither Britain’s Brexit government nor the orange king across the water inspires much confidence.
Freddy Gray, deputy editor of the London Spectator, is a regular contributor to the National Interest.