NEWS & ANALYSIS

Trump back in Brexitland

Andrew Donaldson writes on the US President's visit to attend the Nato summit in London

A FAMOUS GROUSE

THE silly season has arrived. We know this because the first newspaper articles have appeared with advice on surviving said silly season. On Tuesday, for example, The Times’ offering in this regard carried a photo of a very thin woman on a chaise longue with the strapline: “How to get through December without feeling like this: Strategies for avoiding hangovers, germs and exhaustion.”

That the model’s party frock was perfectly in place, along with her bondage blindfold and unsmudged make-up, suggested we were still in September and all had a way to go before the fun started. Either that, or these people are complete strangers to the shape-shifting otherworldliness of a decent brandy and coke bender and we should take everything they say with a pinch of salt. (Followed by a tequila slammer before squeezing lemon juice in one another’s eyes.)

Still, it’s not for want of trying, and the coming week is going to be tough on the livers of jobbing journos. On Tuesday, the Cyprus High Commission hosts the Foreign Press Association in London’s annual Christmas party. The Cypriots’ national drink is zivania, a colourless brandy that has a faint aroma of raisins. It contains no sugars, has no acidity but will otherwise take off the top of your head. Cheers.

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On Thursday, the London School of Economics is hosting an election night party where hacks can join academics and guest speakers “for an evening lively analysis and debate on the potential winners, losers, and consequences for the UK and beyond”. According to my invite, proceedings are expected to drag on until 2am on Friday. Refreshments will be served all night.

Later on Friday afternoon, there’s a post-election bash at the Ivy Club in London where the press may “digest the results” along with various academics, policy wonks and other heavyweights like Sir Anthony Seldon, the renowned political biographer, and Elizabeth Braw, who is a senior strategy advisor with the Royal United Services Institute, the world’s oldest independent think tank on international defence and security. 

Both should be worthwhile buttonholing in a quiet corner and badgered with pertinent questions.

Seldon has written acclaimed works on Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Perhaps he is now considering a book on the present incumbent at 10 Downing Street. Considering Boris Johnson’s long track record of relentless incompetence and hypocrisy there’d be no shortage of material for what essentially would be a study in depravity.

Braw, of course, would have insider skinny on this week’s 70th anniversary Nato summit and the incident at a Buckingham Palace reception where a number of world leaders, Johnson included, were caught on video ridiculing Donald Trump. 

The notoriously thin-skinned Trump promptly cancelled a scheduled press conference, branded the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as “two-faced” for leading the laughter at his expense, and then flew off home in a huff. 

“For the first time in living memory,” the Guardian sketch writer John Crace noted, “the US president was lost for words — even the usual ones that mixed lies with unintelligibility.”

There could have been more to it, of course, and Trudeau’s jokes about the incredulous reaction of White House staffers to the president’s rambling off-script comments at briefings may just have been the final straw for “the Orange Sun Bed King”, as Crace described him. 

Prior to the summit, Trump had previously slagged off Nato at every opportunity. Once he’d arrived, though, he was having hissy fits that no-one was taking him or the US seriously.

Some of the women, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), have their own theories about the narcissist’s sulky behaviour: it’s his wife. It’s bad enough that a new book on Melania Trump reveals that not only do Flotus and Potus have separate bedrooms, but when’s she’s at the White House, they sleep on entirely different floors. 

What’s more, is that Melania seems incapable of stopping herself from doing the gooey eyes thing whenever she’s in the presence of world leaders who are at least 25 years younger than her man-child husband. “Look at her!” the barmaid shouted when the Trumps arrived at Downing Street and Melania seemed in thrall of Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte. “She’s got pants squirm!”

Hence the grumpiness and the petulance. On Wednesday, Trump made a point of being the last to arrive at a meeting of heads of state. Just to be a brat. He then sulked through much of the three hours that followed before finally blurting out, during a bilateral meeting with Angela Merkel, that Justin Trudeau was two-faced. 

With that, Trump perked up briefly. He had everyone’s attention now. Then he flew off home to the news that he will in all likelihood become the third president in US history to be impeached. 

It is true that Republicans control the US Senate, and no Republican senator has yet come out in favour of impeachment, which needs a two-thirds majority to succeed, but Trump’s trial will nevertheless proceed. And what fun that will be.

Johnson, or at least his handlers at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, would have been relieved at Trump’s abrupt departure. The Tories wanted to keep Trump and Johnson kept as far apart as possible during the election campaign. Voters here don’t seem to mind that Johnson is a mendacious buffoon and a coward who refuses to face a grilling from the BBC’s Andrew Neil but any chumminess with Trump would be beyond the pale. 

The fear that an endorsement from the president would possibly jeopardise the Tories’ prospects at the polls was considerable. Writing in the Spectator last week, the former ambassador to the USA and Germany, Sir Christopher Meyer, suggested the Trump visit could not have come at a worse time. The general election and the Nato summit, he said, were intrinsically unconnected.

“In reality [though], they are bound together by the common presence of the President of the United States, who bobs beneath them like an untethered floating mine…

“If it suits him … Trump will not hesitate to leap feet first into our election campaign. He did so this year in Israel. The closeness of the summit to election day will be an added temptation. He has already meddled several times in our politics, questioning Theresa May’s negotiating tactics with the EU, criticising Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, and giving support to both Johnson and Nigel Farage at various times.

It is the kind of thing he loves to do and he may genuinely think he is being helpful. (Mind you, Hillary Clinton, while flogging her book last week in London, had no inhibitions about wading into UK politics at a sensitive electoral moment and calling the government ‘shameful’. She, of all people, should have known better.)”

Thank God, then, for the childish hoo-hah with Trudeau has defused that potential explosive mine. Not that it’s going to be all plain sailing for the Conservatives on voting day. 

Here then is the Grouse’s considered prediction: the Tories — but only just. This, after all, is a Brexit election, and the Remainers are now coalescing around Labour. A hung parliament is entirely possible, which would disastrous for the Conservatives, as they would have no potential partners for a coalition. 

Bottom line: will Boris get Brexit done by the end of next month as promised? Alas not, that particular horrorshow’s going to be around for years to come.