Jacqui Smith: After the abuse, how should ministers treat Trump?

Written by Jacqui Smith on 14 November 2016 in Opinion

Building strong links does not have to mean pandering to values that we fundamentally disagree with.


The unexpected election of Donald Trump as US President raises many profound questions about the growth of populist politics around the world and the nature of his future policy programme at home and abroad. 

In the short term, however, it also raises the tricky question of how British politicians should treat someone they have previously called every name under the sun who is now ascending to the most powerful political role in the world.

The conventional wisdom and practice for Downing Street and Whitehall in previous presidential elections has been to resist ‘taking sides’ on the principled basis that it is wrong to ‘interfere’ in others’ democratic processes and the pragmatic basis that you may need to work with either candidate in the future.  The emergence of Trump in the US election seemed to overturn this convention. 

In January this year, following Trump’s comments on banning Muslims from entering the US, the House of Commons held a debate on whether he should, in turn, be banned from entering the UK.  Over 500,000 people had signed a petition.  The Petitions committee of the House of Commons put forward the issue for debate in Westminster Hall under the relatively new parliamentary petitions procedure.  For a Westminster Hall debate, there was a big turnout.  There was no support for Trump’s views although MPs took different positions on whether he should be banned.  However, during the course of the debate he was variously called an idiot, a ‘wazzock’ and a buffoon. 

It is, of course, for the Home Office not Parliament to determine whether non EEA nationals can be barred from entering the UK using provisions that I strengthened as Home Secretary.  In responding to the petition, then Home Secretary Theresa May stopped short of a ban, but said that she found Trump’s remarks ‘divisive, unhelpful and wrong’.

David Cameron, as Prime Minister, resisted a ban too, but did say ‘"I think if he came to visit our country he'd unite us all against him,"  By this week, Prime Minister May’s comments were more circumspect.  In fact, she received some criticism for appearing to offer Trump ‘good luck’ wishes for the election.  In fact, the Downing Street statement wished both candidates this – rather more in keeping with the traditional approach to US elections.

In January, Trump responded In typically thin skinned fashion by saying that he would withdraw his investment from his Scottish golf developments.  At that point, he wasn’t even the Republican nominee let alone the president.  He holds rather more clubs now and British Ministers have been noticeably moderating their language following his election.  Theresa May offered uncritical and anodyne congratulations following his election.  She spoke to Trump on the phone – even if she was some way down his list of calls.  The spin following the call was that it had been very warm.  

Boris Johnson with some pretty astounding hypocrisy given some of his previous rudeness about international leaders, told the rest of us to end the ‘whinge-o-rama’ about Trump’s election. Others have been able to be more frank about what most of us feel about the Trump election.  Former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, felt able to call him vile and horrible and pointed out that during the campaign he’d lied and spoken of his opponents in a way that undermined not just his reputation, but the whole basis of US democracy. Former Head of MI6, John Sawers suggested that Trump’s volatility could have consequences which are a danger to the world. 

Of course, Beckett and Sawers are not going to be responsible for building future relationships.  Perhaps the cleverest and most challenging message came from Angela Merkel who managed to combine the obligatory congratulations on his election with a call for him to recognise shared values of ‘democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views’. Good for her!

Our relationship with the US is crucial for our security and for our trade so it is important to nurture it.  Some have argued that we should use Nigel Farage’s links to the Trump camp.  I can understand why this idea appears to have been rejected in Downing Street.  Farage clearly does have a relationship with Trump – the problem is his lack of relationships in the UK so his advice would be largely untrusted and unwelcome.

As Home Secretary, I travelled to the US soon after my appointment and again when the Obama administration took office to build relationships and understanding.  From January onwards, UK ministers will need to do the same for the good of UK interests.  That doesn’t mean we have to pander publicly to values and statements we fundamentally disagree with.  But it does mean that work needs to go on behind the scenes to build working links to the new Trump administration as it is formed.

May’s difficult trip to India last week suggested that in a post Brexit world, we’re going to have to be rather more effective at planning and pitchrolling our international relationships than we achieved there.  Boris Johnson and Liam Fox will need to prove that they are more than simply politically clever appointments.  Brexit and Trump mean that we are more alone and more at risk in a more unstable and dangerous world.  We need principled, but serious government to protect us.  



Picture by: Molly Riley/AP/Press Association Images

About the author

Jacqui Smith was home secretary from 2007 to 2009. She is now chair of the public affairs practice at Westbourne Communications.

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