It has not been the quietest of times for Theresa May, the British Prime Minister. Last week, on January 26th, pausing only to issue a good-will message on the occasion of the Chinese New Year—this being the Year of the Rooster—she flew to Philadelphia and addressed the Republican Party conference. She spoke to those present of the “special relationship,” a phrase crying out for a moratorium, and proposed that the two nations “join hands as we pick up that mantle of leadership once more.”
The following day, she laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery and met Donald Trump, with whom, true to her word, she joined hands. From Washington, she travelled straight to Turkey and held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who does to journalists what his counterpart in the White House can only fantasize about. There was pressure on May to raise the thorny issue of human rights, in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup; whatever was or was not discussed, there were not enough thorns to stop the United Kingdom from signing a deal, worth roughly a hundred and twenty five million dollars, to develop fighter jets for the Turkish Air Force.
January 30th found May in Dublin, for talks with Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of Ireland: an encounter of some urgency, since there is grave trouble afoot in Northern Ireland, with the collapse of the power-sharing executive (the sharing, broadly, is between nationalists and republicans) and, as a result, the prospect of fresh elections to the ruling assembly. If the Prime Minister, returning to London at the end of the month, prayed for peace and quiet, she got nothing of the kind. Many thousands of protesters descended on Downing Street, and gathered elsewhere in the land, to air their grievances about—well, about pretty much anything to do with Donald Trump. His policies toward immigrants, for one thing, coupled with the fact that May saw fit, in the course of her short American trip, to invite him to Great Britain on a state visit.
February, thus far, has shown a mild upswing for the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons, M.P.s voted overwhelmingly in favor of Brexit, as they were more or less obliged to do, the country having decided in a referendum last year to leave the European Union. Some bold souls—less than fifty—took a stand against the vote, arguing either that Brexit, whatever the population at large may believe, is and will always be folly, or that their own constituents had voted by a large majority to remain within the E.U. The mood was especially tense for the Labour Party, whose capacity to tie itself in reef knots over this issue remains comically undiminished, and it was all too easy for May, on her feet in the House, to deride Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. “He can lead a protest; I’m leading a country,” she said. Tory M.P.s, who love nothing more than a Prime Minister who reminds them of a school principal, combusted with delight.
On Friday, May was in Malta, for an informal summit meeting of European leaders. In political terms, this represents a delicate assignment for the Prime Minister, given that she will soon no longer be part of the E.U. club. Will she be sent out of the room when the grownups are talking, perhaps, and told to sit on the naughty step? In meteorological terms, however, the island will come as a warm relief after the chill that has greeted her elsewhere. (One notably ungallant photograph, taken at Arlington, focussed on a drip at the end of the Prime Ministerial nose.) And Malta, with its scarlet mailboxes and phone booths, has long been something of a dream state for the British. Travellers of a conservative disposition can slip into a reverie of the nineteen-fifties, when the Queen dwelt there as the young wife of a British naval officer—it remains the only place where she has lived outside her homeland—and when the E.U. was no more than a dark and distant rumble. The temptation, for Theresa May, will be to skip the flight home, put her feet up, pour herself a gin-and-tonic, crack open an Agatha Christie, and wish the world away. Some hope.
So, amid everything that has occurred within this busy week, what stands out? Over what has the Rooster crowed? The first salient detail is the wreath. To pay one’s respects to the armed forces of another country, both at a parade of the living and a memorial to the dead, is standard procedure for a visiting dignitary; before seeing Erdoğan, for example, May went to the tomb of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. Occasionally, however, even the most formulaic of diplomatic acts can acquire an unexpected edge, and so it was at Arlington. May laid her wreath six days after Trump stood in front of the Memorial Wall at C.I.A. headquarters and, while ignoring—or, if you prefer, insulting—the names arrayed behind him, gave a speech largely in tribute to himself. The number of occasions on which he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine came in for particular (and inaccurate) praise. Veneration of the dead is one of the few moral constants that bind nations and elide cultural differences, and the sight of a new President waiving that basic duty, and not appearing to mind, seems to have furrowed the brows not just of his natural opponents but of the Republican old guard. It shouldn’t have taken a foreign Prime Minister, simply doing the obvious, to show Trump how and why it needs to be done.
Whether May should have gone to Washington in quite such haste, at the dawn of the new Administration, was a question much debated in the British press, and beyond. Why jostle and jump to the front of the line when the fellow at the head of it is still unpacking his mirrors and testing the springs of the Presidential bed? The choice will hardly have rested with the Prime Minister alone; nonetheless, to watch her being ushered into America, with a degree of pomp, even as the person she had come to befriend was signing an executive order that denied immediate entrance to visitors and refugees from seven other countries was not, let us say, a happy coincidence. And what did she come away with? Did the President present her with a complimentary bottle of Success by Trump, with its “masculine combination of rich vetiver, tonka bean, birchwood and musk”?
Well, she got one thing. A considerable chunk of May’s speech in Philadelphia was devoted to NATO—not a theme that played a prominent role in the Presidential campaign or, one suspects, weighs heavily on the minds of those who are currently fired up, or taking to the streets, to resist the Trumpian blitz. In Europe, on the other hand, especially on its northern and eastern fringes, there is no more vital subject. Go to Vilnius, for example, the capital of Lithuania, and look out for the City Hall. There, on the side of the building, is a plaque with the following inscription: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.” The words were uttered by George W. Bush, at the hall, in 2002. These days, Lithuanians could be excused for feeling a squirm of anxiety. After all, the new American Commander-in-Chief, though hailing from the same party as Bush, has declared NATO to be “obsolete” and professed an admiration for Vladimir Putin—who could, if he so pleased, and if he calculated that America might not be roused to revenge, dispatch his tanks across the Lithuanian border. At present, not unlike the frontier between Mexico and the United States, it is only lightly fenced.
It was, therefore, with relief that some observers, listening to the joint press conference of the President and the Prime Minister, on January 27th, heard these words from May: “On defense and security coöperation, we’re united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense, and today we’ve reaffirmed our unshakeable commitment to this alliance. Mr. President, I think you confirmed that you’re a hundred per cent behind NATO.” A small but smart move, that: turn to the guy who’s been wavering and force him to assent. At which point Donald gave a nod. Optimists will claim that the entire fuss and cost of May’s visit was worth it for the sake of that nod. Skeptics will ask: In the land of Trump, what’s in a nod? To the President, it may mean no more than a sneeze. Lithuanians, meanwhile, will cross their fingers and buy the biggest guard dog they can find.
And so to the holding of hands: the two world leaders lightly linked as they emerged into a colonnade of the White House. Various theories have been adduced for this gesture: genuine amity, a vestige of courtliness, too much lunch, or the possibility that the President is afraid of stairs. (Roll on his first trip to Egypt. “And now, sir, the Great Pyramid of Giza!”) Perhaps Trump was merely putting into action that indefinable rapport which, at the press conference, he had called “one of the great bonds,” although it is also possible that his thoughts at that point were drifting toward Sean Connery. Or perhaps May was being the chivalrous one, gently guiding her nervous new friend down an incline in the way that you might help an elderly relative to find the way to the bathroom. Equally, bearing the President’s track record in mind, she could have weighed the strategic option and taken a snap decision: If he was going to grab her anywhere, it might as well be by the hand. Personally, I think we should grant them both the benefit of the doubt, and set this touching scene in the colonnade beside another, much-loved moment of togetherness:
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
There was one last nicety to savor in the Prime Minister’s American journey. In the official White House schedule, her first name was misspelled, as “Teresa.” An easy mistake to make, you could say, though it bore a trace of the slapdash, and all was forgiven as global attention turned briefly to another, no less compelling British figure: Teresa May, without the “h.” “I am a UK Glamour model, not the UK Prime Minister,” she announces on Twitter, with a clarity that would serve her well in most government departments. Like her near-namesake, she is also brisk and purposeful in her attitude to trade, offering repeated opportunities to buy “signed topless selfies” and inquiring, in case we were unsure, “Did you know you can get a download of my naughty and very rude Blue Movie Star here.” Some wag dug up a BBC radio broadcast, from 2000, in which Theresa and Teresa were interviewed at the same time, and encouraged to compare notes. The joke is that both women emerge with credit and dignity from what was clearly intended to be an awkward clash. “I haven’t actually seen—I have to confess—any of the things that Teresa has been involved in,” the politician says. (That “actually” is perfect.) She adds, “It’s up to her how she wishes to earn her living. I mean, she may think it’s slightly strange that somebody likes to earn their living as a politician.” To which the model and actress replies, “Everyone has to do a job out there, and I’m sure she does it very well, just like I do my job very well.” Nonetheless, few can resist the lure of speculation: If Teresa had been welcomed to Washington last week, in place of Theresa, and held paws with the President, how great would the bond be now?
The last and most important issue to arise from May’s encounter with Trump—the offer of a full state visit to the U.K.—has yet to bear fruit. As for what the fruit will look like when it drops, Lord only knows. There are two conundrums here: First, does the President merit the invitation? Infuriated crowds, on both sides of the Atlantic, know the answer to that one. In Britain, an online petition has been set up, which at the time of this writing had gathered more than a million eight hundred and thirty-five thousand signatures; any figure over a hundred thousand automatically triggers a debate in Parliament. (This one is pencilled in for February 20th.) The wording of the petition should give joy to long-term students of the British character: “Donald Trump should be allowed to visit the UK in his capacity as head of the US government, but he should not be invited to make an official State Visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.” No other country in the world, we can safely say, would give such prominence to embarrassment, which is deemed elsewhere to be a minor-league emotion. Every place, you might say, has its own worst nightmare of infringement. If Marine Le Pen gets elected in France, and issues a comparable invitation to President Trump, the opposing petition is likely to center on ketchup.
The second mystery, then: Why was the invitation extended so damned early? George W. Bush was asked, but only after he had served more than a thousand days in office. Barack Obama came after eight hundred and fifty-four days. President Trump, by contrast, has only just moved in, and already he’s sending his white tie and tails off to the dry cleaners. Perish the thought, but it’s almost as if the British Foreign Office were trying to be Trumpist—as if it were infected by the headlong, no-time-to-waste approach that he has demonstrated in his first days, to the deep satisfaction of his followers and the horror of his foes.
Whatever the case, the whole affair smacked of bad timing, and May, ill-advised, was left dangling—making nice, as protocol demands, but falling seriously out of step with the electorate back home, who gazed at the antics of the new President and wondered what kind of guest he would make. While still in Washington, the Prime Minister, quizzed about the President’s immigration policy, had said politely that it was a matter for the United States. Once returned, and rather too late, she made her displeasure known, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was asked to communicate the government’s “unease.” I bet that made the Trump Administration quake in its shoes. The unfortunate upshot for Theresa May was that, almost for the first time since her election, she seemed not to know her own mind.
It is another British woman, of course, who will be at the sharp end of the state visit. One aspect of the Queen’s ineffable appeal is that she definitely knows her own mind (look at the firm set of her jaw) but has absolutely no intention of letting us know what is going on inside it. Experience has made her endlessly canny and deft; hers is a practical wisdom, and, of all the people in Great Britain who will be affected by the forthcoming advent of President Trump, she, one imagines, will lose the least sleep. Not so Lord Ricketts, who has been fretting himself on her behalf. He was the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office from 2006 to 2010, and this week, in a letter to the London Times, he wrote of Donald Trump, “It would have been far wiser to wait to see what sort of President he would turn out to be before advising the Queen to invite him. Now the Queen is put in a very difficult position.”
Well, not that difficult. She will doubtless recall, among the many eminent personages who have been accorded the honor of a state visit, the following Presidents: Mobutu, of Zaire, the working definition of a corrupt tyrant; Suharto, of Indonesia, who inflicted prolonged violence upon sections of his own populace; and Ceaușescu, of Romania, a man of such irredeemably poor character that Her Majesty—so the story goes—took swift action to avoid him, in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, by concealing herself behind a bush. In a BBC documentary, the former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing revealed that he had contacted the royal household in advance of the Ceaușescus’ arrival, warning that, when they came to Paris, lamps, vases, and other expensive fittings had gone missing from the rooms. “It was as if burglars had moved in for a whole summer,” Giscard said.
Whether the Queen took the precaution of stripping the Ceaușescus’ guest room bare before they showed up, leaving only the wallpaper, the water jug, and a copy of George Orwell’s “1984,” we cannot know. But, whatever you make of Donald Trump, domestic larceny will surely not be a cause for concern. If anything, he seems likely to bring his own fixtures, lest those furnished by Buckingham Palace strike him as insufficiently fantastic. One thing that’s certain is that he will enjoy the coach—the horse-drawn Diamond Jubilee coach, that is, in which he and the monarch will, as custom requires, process down the Mall. There is a lot of gold going on in that coach. It may be the goldenest thing he ever took a ride in. The best.
The problem, then, will not be the transport. The problem, if there is one, will be the citizens lining the Mall and other public areas. (In 1971, Emperor Hirohito went to Britain on a state visit. Many veterans of the Second World War, including some who had suffered terribly under the Japanese as prisoners of war, turned their backs on the procession, in a silent protest: the most effective method by far.) It is possible that, if the Trump visit does not take place for many months—and the longer the delay, the better—some of the fervor that has been kindled against the President will have died down. The opposite may also occur. Either way, the Metropolitan Police and the American Secret Service will, it seems fair to say, have plenty to occupy them. In a strange way, there is much to look forward to. How on earth will the President fare on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral? And, if asked to pause at the Cenotaph—the solid and simple memorial to the fallen, in Whitehall—will he bow his head, or applaud the size of the throng that has come out to greet him? Will the Duke of Edinburgh, confronted with the spectacle of Donald Trump, say out loud, “I don’t give a tonka bean about that man”? Above all, will the President, emboldened by his dexterity with the Prime Minister, attempt to grab the hand of Her Majesty? He could try sidling up to her from behind, taking the royal paw, and whispering, “I just wanted to be sure of you.” But I wouldn’t recommend it.