You have to have sympathy for Mrs May. She probably has two in-trays, one, and by far the biggest, how to make Brexit work and second, everything else. Given this you might think it is not surprising that she drops the occasional diplomatic clanger.
The decision to extend an invitation for a State visit to President Trump is clearly a mistake. Rattled by the public outcry Downing Street’s initial response seemed to be “it wasn’t us”. There was the “clarification” of the process whereby invitations are proposed alluding to a some arcane Committee which no one had ever heard of as if it had come up with a proposal which Mrs May had just accepted. This was so obviously incredible no one really pushed it. According to all reports, Mrs May’s faults do not include a failure to attend to detail. The idea one of the UK’s most powerful weapons in the arsenal of soft power would be deployed without her specific proposal much less considered approval is laughable.
The question then arises about why do it so early in Trump’s presidency. Yes Mr Trump was elected and yes he is now the leader of the most powerful nation in the world but why offer him the star prize this early in his Presidency. Usually this is something that happens a couple of year in. Mrs May seems to have gone a lot further than most British leaders on the first date. Well beyond holding hands.
It could be that no one in her team appreciated how unacceptably President Trump could behave. This seems unlikely. Whilst his capacity to shock is undiminished his ability to surprise is long past. His demeanour is boorish, his attitude to almost every minority, and some majorities, is appalling and his politics are vile. All of this is clear and has been so for some time.
He is, non the less, the democratically elected leader of the US and it is a key part of the job description of the UK Prime Minister to establish a professional and friendly relationship with the “leader of the free world”. With everything that was known before the visit however you might have thought the emphasis, at this early stage, would be on establishing a professional relationship. Friendship, might have been seen as a future goal, growing out of cordial in the fullness of time.
The fact Mrs May had forewarning of the ban on immigration makes things even more puzzling. She was not ambushed in the Turkish press conference, she and her advisors had plenty of time to think about this. Something which the majority of our allies responded to in clear and unambiguous terms almost immediately was given a straight bat in Turkey.
Unfortunately, she has now painted herself into a corner where there is no good move. She sticks with the invitation and risks a visit marred by demonstrations or withdraws it and upsets the biggest toddler on the planet who will scream and scream and scream.
But why? How has someone who was selected precisely because she was seen as a safe pair of hands arrived at this pass? I started this piece speculating about Mrs May having two in-trays. Of course that is not true. There is only one and it is Brexit. Her place in history will be defined by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. To make this a success is probably Mission Impossible but to prevent it being an unmitigated disaster hard Brexit requires alternative trading agreement being put in place and in record time.
Could it be that the need to make early progress on a trade deal with the United States blinded Mrs May to all the risks in developing a close relationship with President Trump? Perhaps. It is impossible to know from outside. What is clear is that it has not been Mrs May’s best moment so far and it has created an issue which has a long way to run. More significantly it betrays a failure to appreciate quite what a challenge President Trump represents. With him politics has shifted gear and the existing political elites are struggling to come to terms with this. They need to and fast.