Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images. All rights reserved.
While all eyes in the US turned to the dramatic release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, across the Atlantic a separate political thriller continued its second bestselling month. Tim Shipman’s Fallout (London: William Collins, 2017) spills the guts of British politics for the past year, laying plain for all who read the treacherous, if not lurid, tale about the British governments tough slog to survive the Trump Administration’s unprecedented dysfunction. Although much of this 559-page work is steeped in what Americans might consider British political “inside baseball,” authoritative accounts based on interviews by Shipman broadly corroborate the Fire and Fury narrative. As told by Shipman, little in this comprehensive work will prove any reassurance to wary English readers on the reliability of its special US ally under Trump.
Of course, Trump’s assault on the UK was in full swing throughout his campaign, as he accused Britain in 2015 of “trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem,” and of having “no-go” areas where cowering police dared not venture. Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, decried Trump’s remarks as “betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president of the United States,” while then Prime Minister David Cameron called Trump “divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong.”
As Shipman chronicles Britain from 2016-2017—one of the more chaotic years in British politics—he reveals how the new British government, led by Tory leader Theresa May, similarly struggled to manoeuvre the fallout from Trump’s election on British-American relations, or more accurately British-Trump relations. Shipman borrows from the eminently quotable Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, as confiding to friends prior to Trump’s victory that the contest would “expose America’s primal psyche as never before. If it is Trump, it will be a victory of really base daytime TV Redneck America.”
Shipman describes general panic within the May government following Trump’s stunner, from the chaos of the transition to the formative first meetings to try and fix the relationship. As Trump tried from the outset to have UKIP leader and anti-immigration/Brexit champion Nigel Farage appointed as UK envoy, the May government faced its first test—and won. Coinciding with that push back, however, Britain found that diplomatic courtesies it had grown accustomed to were largely discarded. May was stacked behind nine other foreign leaders Trump made courtesy calls to upon taking office, with follow up taking much longer than usual.
Shipman details how on practical matters Boris Johnson found himself dealing with ex-Brietbarter ideologue Steve Bannon and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. When the Muslim ban took the world by surprise, Johnson was relegated to dealings with 31-year old Trump aide Stephen Miller, who has drawn criticism for his alleged links with white nationalists. It was Miller who authored key portions of the ban (only to see most portions of it later stricken during federal judicial review). Britain’s panic over the Trump Administration’s stance on NATO were hardly put to rest when in an initial meeting Bannon flippantly told Johnson and his UK counterparts how the US would be “relaxed” if Russia were to “move into some Baltic state” and overrun it. His comments prompted Johnson’s outrage, along with a history lesson to correct what he saw as Bannon’s dangerous ignorance of European history.
Perhaps disconcerting for US readers is Shipman’s reveal of how at the top rungs of British diplomacy, Britain assessed that as “an outsider and unknown” Trump would somehow be “open to outside influence if pitched right.” Such attitudes are the things that keep counterintelligence professionals awake at night. No wonder a Special Counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller is taking a hard look at exactly how others might seek to realize that vulnerability in Trump. Leaked details of Trump’s alleged profligate Moscow moments within the so-called “Steele Dossier,” an opposition report compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, did little to improve Trump’s views broad toward Britain. It reached the point of insult when team Trump claimed Britain’s clandestine eavesdropping agency GCQC had been used by the Obama Administration to help spy on Trump’s election, which the May government vigorously denied.
Shipman describes how, anxious to save the US-UK ‘special relationship’, Britain dangled the “secret weapon” before Trump: a “Full Monty state visit” to England and Scotland, filled with royal hobnobbing, golf, and all manner of vain excesses. Trump had reportedly said “I can’t wait to come over to England. My mum would be chuffed to bits when I meet the Queen.” Yet over the course of 2017, Trump increasingly complained to May how “I haven’t had great [media] coverage out there,” while adding, “If you can fix it for me, it would make things a lot easier…When I know I’m going to get a better reception, I’ll come and not before.”
That was not to be. Within Britain, the anti-Trump backlash has proven insurmountable. From the debacle of Trump’s leaks of British intelligence following the Manchester bombing to his retweeting of Britain’s Islamophobic hate group Britain First to his latest pronouncements that Haiti, El Salvador and Africa are “shithole countries,” widespread revulsion to Trump prevails in Britain.
That is, apart from the country’s far right Islamophobes or other white nationalist extremes.
Such groups were on hand in recent weeks to interrupt a speech by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, replete with a symbolic gallows. But Khan is hardly alone rejecting the ideology of Trump, what he represents, and the threat that Trump poses to Britain’s internal security. Indeed, under Britain’s own Foreign Commonwealth Office guidelines, one could convincingly make the case (were he not President) for Trump’s ideological exclusion and denial of entry from the UK for “fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”
A range of British politicians saw that dangerous potential in Trump from early on. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons and a Tory MP, long ago declared Trump would not be welcome in Westminster. Even before Trump ditched the Paris pact, Prince Charles, a firm believer in climate change, was unenthused to meet Trump. Speculation was also rife most recently that Prince Harry did not want Trump at his planned nuptials with African-American actress Meghan Markle. As for the left, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour Party continues to gain record high new membership—also seen as a rebuke both of May but also the conservative Brexit politics she and Trump endorsed. In short, Britain’s rejection of Trump can hardly be blamed on Khan.
Fortunately for May, just hours after Trump’s “shithole” debacle the other week—at midnight the same day, to be more precise—Trump finally did the US-UK relationship a favour by tweeting to say he would be cancelling his visit to London. This saved May from her early embrace of Trump. What would have been a guaranteed political shitshow, complete with massive street demonstrations and churlish Trumpian responses, May was spared by a single tweet. Those American politicians losing local congressional elections across the US would fully understand why May might breathe a sigh of relief.
More broadly, anyone who picks up Shipman’s book having followed Trump’s debauched first year in office will easily conclude the real motive behind his London cancellation: no one in Britain is prepared to offer Trump the fawning pageantry and pre-canned choreography he expects, a la Saudi Arabia last spring. A master at branding, even Trump understands his visit would have presented the exact opposite, posing an outright security risk to all concerned. To Trump’s disappointing discovery, that’s how real democracies work. And in that one finds a silver lining: of all denizens worldwide upset with America over Trump, Brits understand what it means to make a wrong call at the ballot box, and the value to weathering a hiccup in the relationship to preserve the alliance for a greater common good.