Prime Minister Theresa May likely spluttered out her Wheatypops all over the breakfast bar in the prime minister’s private apartment at Number 10 Downing Street on Monday morning. She may have just picked up the Rupert Murdoch-owned London Times on Jan. 16 to learn that she had been upstaged by her formal rival for Tory leadership Michael Gove. The former politician and current Times columnist had scored a one-hour interview with President-elect Donald J. Trump in New York.
Instantly, she knew she had been, erm, trumped. Mr. Gove got to be the first senior Tory figure to meet the president-elect, long before the prime minister would. Mr. Gove may have beat Mrs. May to the Trump Tower, but he, of course, has already been preceded to the lap of Trumpian luxury by that Nigel Farage chap, former leader of the Brexit-happy U.K. Independence Party.
The content of the interview was probably no consolation to the prime minister either. In a clear sign that he intends to have his say in the Brexit negotiations—interfering with another nation’s politics having evidently become a thing—the U.S. president-elect told his admiring interviewer that Britain is “smart” for getting out of the European Union. The adjective is the same Americanism that he used to describe himself when Hillary Clinton scolded him for avoiding his share of U.S. income taxes.
The interview fashioned a clear, presumably deliberate, rebuke for the outgoing President Obama and, by association, the British government, as Mr. Trump declared that he planned to enact a quick trade deal with Britain once it leaves the European Union. Mr. Obama had predicted, in a controversial intervention on British soil during the Brexit campaign, that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” in any new trade deal negotiations. He had attracted hostility here for those remarks, but that is not a concern that would give Mr. Trump pause.
He told his adoring questioner: “I’m a big fan of the U.K., we’re gonna [sic] work very hard to get [a trade deal] done quickly and done properly. Good for both sides.”
The interview included an even more outspoken censure for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, in the assessment of a president-elect who apparently doubts the value of NATO, had put the stability and security of Europe in danger. “She made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all those illegals [sic], you know, taking all of the people wherever they came from,” Mr Trump said. “And nobody even knows where they come from.”
He then appeared to suggest that Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy had caused Brexit because Germany had “forced” Britain to take in refugees. Elsewhere in the interview, Mr. Trump said that he thinks the European Union is “basically a vehicle for Germany.”
If and when the British prime minister does get to meet the new U.S. president, whether in the White House or in what Mr. Gove, apparently smitten, dubbed the “gilded, golden man-cave” of Trump Tower, she will know that leading scientists want her to press him to modify his view of climate change. Alarmed by Mr. Trump’s appointment of a known climate change denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency, over 100 prominent climate scientists in the United Kingdom have urged Prime Minister May to press the president-elect to reverse plans to cancel NASA’s climate research work. Mr. Trump has also threatened to withdraw from the hard-won Paris climate change agreement and has never hidden his disdain for the scientific consensus on climate-change, which he has labeled a hoax.
Mrs. May would not have been cheered any if she read further down the interview. Mr. Trump did say that he was keen to meet the prime minister after his inauguration, noting that she had even sent him a letter. “In fact, if you want, you can see the letter, wherever the letter is, she just sent it,” he offered. We can only presume that it was lying somewhere on his desk, perhaps hidden under the architects’ plans for the Mexican wall or his notes for his inaugural address.
Mr. Gove, known to be close to media mogul Murdoch, secured himself a lucrative return to the latter’s paper soon after Mrs. May had handed him his coat after he failed in his effort to get her job last year, dispatching him from the powerful role of justice minister during the Westminster bloodbath that followed her coronation. He had been, with Boris Johnson, a leader of the “Leave” side in the Brexit campaign, whereas Mrs. May, as far as anyone could tell, had been a quiet Remainer.
It was his last-minute entry to the leadership race after former Prime Minister David Cameron had walked away from Number 10, that presented the Downing Street keys to Mrs. May, sabotaging Mr. Johnson’s leadership ambitions. Not long after moving in, Mrs. May moved to dismantle the previous Tory set-up, dubbed by some a “chumocracy.” She probably knew that she was creating a neuralgic atmosphere on Parliament’s backbenches; she knows that scores will be settled, one way or another.
How all this, and Mr. Trump’s latest and certainly not last intervention into U.K. affairs, will influence the forthcoming Brexit negotiations is an intriguing, open question. If Mr. Trump’s populist interventions are not inconvenienced by hard facts, such as climate change science or remembering that those “illegals” are fleeing for their lives—and often losing their lives in the process—a spoiled breakfast will be the least of the prime minister’s worries.
David Stewart, S.J., is America’s London correspondent.