A less needy leader might have been keen to debunk the notion – loudly touted by the new president – that she would play Maggie to his Reagan. But, no, May was content for it to appear as if they had colour co-ordinated their outfits like newly smitten lovers. I have no idea who made her matchy-matchy suit. But her scent, as she fawned over the return of the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, was unmistakably Eau de Desperation.
Unfortunately, the vision of harmony did not extend to body language; as they posed for photographs the pair were the embodiment of adolescent awkwardness. And once the press conference began, it was clear, it was not – and never would be – a partnership of equals. While May bowed and scraped, Trump – who suffers from an unusual combination of narcissism and Tourette’s – couldn’t resist asserting his superiority, telling assembled reporters the British Prime Minister wasn’t interested in the US’s relationship with Mexico (instead of letting her answer for herself) and making a snidey comment about her choice of questioner when BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg dared to challenge him on his position on abortion, immigration and torture.
If there’s one thing the past few days have proved, it’s that self-delusion is contagious. So bigly has May boxed herself in, so intensely does she need this trade deal, she has convinced herself she is still operating within the normal parameters of political engagement – where leaders argue, negotiate and reach a compromise – as opposed to being trapped inside the projection of a Reality TV star’s ego. She has bought into the pretence that Trump is a bona fide statesman and not a loose cannon, for whom firing off angry tweets – complete with BLOCK CAPITALS and exclamation marks – passes for diplomacy, and whose aversion to the truth verges on the pathological.
And so the press conference – what a great coup! – played like a folie à deux, with both parties revelling in “the special relationship” and offering up a vision of a glorious, post-Brexit future where the UK and the US will trade away to their hearts’ content, and poor ordinary people – who have to work “all hours”, and weren’t, in any way, screwed over by the Tories’ welfare reforms – will have their dignity restored.
While, back on planet earth, everyone else tried to process the latest in a succession of shocks – a Holocaust Memorial Day executive order instituting the “extreme vetting” of refugees from terror-plagued countries – May continued to pursue her policy of appeasement, suggesting she and Trump have more in common than that which divides them.
She certainly didn’t contradict the president when he said he’d been in Scotland the day before the Brexit vote and – like some mystical seer – had predicted a victory for Leave (though she must have remembered his visit was the day after, and he wasn’t even on-the-ball enough to grasp Scotland had voted Remain). Indeed, the only point at which she asserted herself was when she said she opposed lifting sanctions on Russia.
Even if you accept the need to put Britain’s interests first, May’s faith in Trump is misplaced. In order to secure this free trade deal – a trade deal she only needs because the UK is about to exit the biggest collective economy in the world – she is willing to alter our foreign policy, flirt with the idea of allowing US corporations greater involvement in the NHS and turn a blind eye to misogyny. Yet Trump’s whole inauguration speech was a paean to American protectionism. In the run-up to Friday’s press conference, US reporters were pointing out the White House couldn’t even spell her name right and scoffing at the idea a deal with Britain would be a priority. But even suppose it were, would it be to our advantage? Trump prides himself on playing hardball; has written books detailing how “the other guy is always shafted”. Getting one over on a rival appears to be a point of principle. And May’s submissiveness – her willingness to make concessions before negotiations have even started – has put her in the weakest of positions. That all sounds like a poor return on her soul.
The Trump presidency is not so much a test of political nous, but of moral fibre. May seems to feel no shame about her failure to confront him on difficult issues nor to be worrying about her long-term legacy. But, make no mistake, her refusal to call out his racism, his sexism or his lying will, one day, be judged as complicity. Her speech to the Republicans in Philadelphia – particularly the part where she talks of Trump’s victory leading to a stronger, greater America – and the stomach-churning photograph of them holding hands, which was splashed across yesterday’s front pages, will come back to haunt her and may yet define her premiership. You can already picture that image of chumminess appearing in future documentaries on the madness of the Trump years, as a solemn narrator assesses what part various world leaders played in his rise and fall.
May will be compared with Angela Merkel, whose refusal to pander to Trump’s meglomania, or to greet his victory in anything but the coolest terms, has seen her cast out of the inner circle. (Obama saw her as his link to Europe; it took Trump more than a week to lift up the phone).
Merkel knows what it means to pursue a policy because it’s right rather than because it’s politically expedient. Her policy on refugees has cost her not only Trump’s allegiance, but a degree of support in her own country. However, her ability to see the new president for what he is – an unhinged, right-wing blow-hard – does her nothing but credit.
She continues to hold the line – on both immigrants and Trump – despite forthcoming elections. Perhaps the current turmoil will play in her favour. Her cautious nature, often regarded as a flaw, will surely prove more attractive in an era of instability. Then again, voters may agree her “open door policy” was misguided and transfer their support to Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party or the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (as happened in last year’s regional elections). Whatever the result in September, I suspect history will be kind to Merkel. The craven May: not so much.