Greg Lance – Watkins
Theresa May strikes balance between courtship and candour
UK leader hails special relationship but warns US not to ‘step back’ from global role
Theresa May will meet Donald Trump on Friday after winning plaudits for an ambitious foreign policy speech in which she subtly urged the US president to shoulder his global responsibilities to avert the “eclipse of the west”.
The speech to Republican Congressional leaders on Thursday was on one level a familiar attempt by a British prime minister to curry favour with the new occupant of the White House by invoking the “special relationship”. Allusions to the 1980s pairing of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan also guaranteed Mrs May a warm reception from her Republican audience in Philadelphia.
But she was also making a carefully crafted attempt to confront Mr Trump with the need to fight to sustain western values, faced with the rise of China and an increasingly assertive Russia.
Mrs May reminded her US audience how America shaped the modern world through its support for organisations such as the UN, whose funding Mr Trump wants to cut, and Nato, which the new president has dismissed as “obsolete”.
She said the old Blair doctrine of “liberal intervention” in the affairs of sovereign countries was over, but suggested Mr Trump was making a big mistake if his “America First” policy meant turning his back on the world.
“We — our two countries together — have a responsibility to lead,” she said. “Because when others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, for Britain and the world.”
She played to Mr Trump by attacking the “malign” influence of Iran in the Middle East but had a blunt warning for the US president over his warming relations with Vladimir Putin: “Engage — but beware.”
The speech won applause in Philadelphia and back in Britain.
“That was a serious speech by Theresa May,” tweeted Philip Collins, Tony Blair’s former speech writer. “I feared we might look craven and a bit needy. Not a bit of it.”
Meanwhile, Sir Anthony Seldon, chronicler of a number of prime ministers, said: “May hits the right note again. It’s been a long time since a British prime minister has had such a strong 10 days.” Even Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader, praised the speech.
After her well-received Brexit speech Mrs May is on something of a roll. Her newfound momentum comes after an awkward start to January when her EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers quit and The Economist accused her of dithering under the cover headline “Theresa Maybe”.
Friday could be tougher as she prepares for a joint press conference with Mr Trump at the White House — an event that recent experience suggests could prove highly unpredictable and difficult to control. Mrs May likes to be in control.
The US press are unlikely to give the president an easy ride after his high-profile attacks on “dishonest” reporting. The British press will probe Mrs May’s many differences with Mr Trump on issues from torture to Russia.
Her comment on Thursday that “sometimes opposites attract” lays her open to criticism in Britain that she is preparing for an unedifying love-in with the new president — the kind that sets European teeth on edge.
Mrs May and Mr Trump will want to focus on a future trade deal — a commercial expression of their new partnership — even though it may be a long way off. But so far on her US visit, the prime minister has deftly managed to play the role of candid friend.
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