Josh May: The absolute state of May's dealings with Trump

Written by Josh May on 30 January 2017 in Opinion

The UK government’s line on Donald Trump’s ban on refugees has been on quite a journey in the last 36 hours or so.

First, Theresa May said nothing about Donald Trump's executive order targeting Muslim-majority countries and shutting down refugee entry.

Then she said it was a matter for the US. Then No 10 said the PM disagreed with the policy. And now the foreign secretary Boris Johnson is saying it is “divisive and wrong” as other ministers warn it will be “counterproductive” in its apparent aim to tackle Islamist terrorism.

Could that criticism intensify further? Could Trump’s planned state visit even be postponed? The invite only went out three days ago on Friday, don’t forget.

As on Monday morning, 900,000-odd people had signed a petition calling for the offer to be withdrawn, while Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron have also said the president should not get the pomp and circumstance of the royal carriages, the white tie banquets, the royal audiences as long as the ban on refugees remains in place. There will also be protests outside No 10 and in some other British cities this evening against Trump’s ban.

Downing Street has doubled down on the invite, saying: “We extended the invite and it was accepted.” May said Britain “needs to think long-term”, so it looks as if there is pretty much no chance that the UK will rescind the offer unilaterally.

But there is another factor that could be in play: will the White House want the visit to go ahead if Trump’s attendance is going to attract enormous protests (and possibly a lesson about climate science from the heir to the throne)?

That is the point made by former FCO minister Alistair Burt, who told the Westminster Hour last night a state visit would be "very uncomfortable for both sides" and could look "really terrible". He suggested a "diplomatic excuse" – endorsed by both countries – could be discovered to delay the trip.

And the Tory MP also said No 10 should come up with a strategy for dealing with Trump-triggered embarrassments, given the likelihood that there will be plenty more. “You smack back quite hard in the first instance,” he added.

As for the consequences of the ban itself, the fact that the foreign secretary and home secretary had to find out – two days after the ban came into force – what effects it would have reflects pretty clearly how much consultation and planning had gone into the executive order.

The US domestic picture shows a similarly confused picture: after Homeland Security initially confirmed it would apply to US green card holders from those seven countries, that appeared to have been ditched by Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus yesterday – only for him then to contradict himself. Canada apparently has a similar exemption to the UK on the dual nationals issue, but we’re not quite sure whether that applies to all other countries or only those two.

The easy – and usually correct – assumption is that such chaos is a result of incompetence or mistakes. But there is a theory that the confusion is exactly what the White House wanted. The outrage it has prompted will be presented as an over-reaction by liberals driven by a hostile media that is determined to distort the reality of the order.

The apparent softening of the order on those with the right to reside in the US looks like a classic example of pushing hard in one direction before seeking credit for then mitigating the most egregious side effects – thus shifting terms of the debate and polarising further the pro-Trump side and those opposed to him.



Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images


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Josh May is news editor of

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