Theresa May has a tough job. To the west lies the most revolutionary American administration in modern times, to the east smoulders a resentful and divided European Union, and beyond that lurks a newly assertive and unpredictable Russia. Mrs May, as she seeks to escort Britain from under the Brussels duvet, must walk a political, economic and diplomatic tightrope stretching from Washington to Moscow.
She has made a good start – holding hands with the US President while securing his support for NATO and an early US-UK trade deal, essential counterweights to the fractious talks that lie ahead over a divorce settlement with the Europeans.
She has also demonstrated a lightness of touch – knowing when a question is better ducked than answered, as she showed when the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg attempted to drag her into the swamp of passing judgement on the maverick Donald Trump’s distinctly non-BBC stance on matters such as torture, Russia and Muslim immigration. The Prime Minister knows that to stay aloft on her tightrope she cannot afford to shoot from the hip, a diplomatic restraint she again displayed when invited to condemn Trump suspension of immigration from terror-prone, predominantly Muslim countries.
As with the spat over the wonky Trident missile, Downing Street subsequently provided an answer after Mrs May had retreated from the spotlight.
With the Tweeter-in-Chief in the White House (and all manner of other world leaders lining up to have their say), this won’t be the last time the Prime Minister is invited to take sides in frenzy of media agitation. But her instinct to ask questions first and shoot later is likely to stand her in good stead. Better to stay frozen in place on her tightrope that plunge into the abyss below.
Mrs May is fond of saying she does not intend to give a running commentary on Brexit (or indeed much else). On that subject, after much reflection, she has given an admirably clear-sighted exposition of her principles and objectives, making it abundantly clear to the dimmest Remoaner that Britain will leave the EU in 2019 (and that means leaving the single market and the customs union). Nor does she have to give a running commentary on Mr Trump’s whirlwind embrace of the US presidency..
Trump promised a crackdown on immigration from countries known to harbour Islamist terrorists – a commitment that delighted his blue collar base and appalled the liberal intelligentsia of the East and West coasts. His move may be struck down in the courts, proved impracticable, condemned across the world and ultimately diluted. But no one can claim that he is not acting upon the manifesto pledges that got him elected.
No doubt, he has other firecrackers up his sleeve, which should, at the least, mean that his left-liberal detractors will soon have something new to fulminate about.
The British Prime Minister, as she said alongside Turkish President Erdogan (another affront to polite opinion), is not responsible for the actions of the US President – code, since translated by her No 10 spinners, for saying she does not agree with him. But it is not Mrs May’s job to say whether she agrees or not with her American counterpart. It is her job to build the closest possible relationship with the leader of Britain’s closest ally and, just as important, the world’s only super-power.
Quite clearly, the vicar’s daughter from the Cotswolds has little in common with the brash and vulgar New York property billionaire who seized the White House from under the noses of the American establishment. But she knows for all kinds of reasons, she has to make things work.
Mrs May realises she is condemned to her high wire act for as long as she can bring it off. Fireside chats with Merkel and Putin cannot be far away. In the post-Brexit world, one of opportunity and new beginnings as much as threats, she will need all the friends she can get.
(Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann)