It was all going relatively well considering. Donald had (mostly) kept his hands to himself. Theresa had given a substantial and well received speech. Next to a relatively well behaved, but still simian Donald the Prime Minister looked statesmanlike at their press conference. Not even a few impertinent questions from journalists could ruin their big day.
Then came the reminder that this is not a normal presidency. Hours after the PM to flew off to flatter another strongman (Turkey’s Recep Erdogan), Donald Trump issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees and nationals from six other predominantly Islamic nations from entering America for at least 90 days. Those excluded include children at risk of death, Iraqis who have worked with U.S. troops for years, as well as those who had gone through the toughest vetting process in the world.
The ban was so broadly drafted it could also be applied to those from those countries with green cards — those already given indefinite leave to remain in America, and who may have been living there for decades. The White House has since clarified that green card holders may be able to leave America and return if they meet with a consular official before travelling (would you risk it?). The ban may extend to both an Oscar nominee and the Canadian immigration minister. Within hours there were tales of people being detained at airports having been mid-flight when the order was issued. At a stroke, people with valid U.S. visas were no longer able to travel. Google, that symbol of America’s innovation and global dominance, reportedly told 100 employees to return home immediately. Stephen Legomsky, a leading immigration lawyer who advised the Obama administration told the website ProPublica as many as 500,000 U.S. residents could be affected.
All of these things, except the White House clarification on green card holders not being effectively detained in the U.S., were known when Theresa May stood up alongside Turkish Prime Minister for another press conference. Inevitably, having watched the British PM talk about leading together alongside Trump the previous day, they asked about this new executive order. May dodged one question, from Sky News’ Faisal Islam by talking up Britain’s treatment of refugees. The hacks persisted, they heckled her and asked again.
“The United States is responsible for the United States’ policy on refugees,” came the answer from the Prime Minister. “The United Kingdom is responsible for the United Kingdom’s policy on refugees.”*
Most of our thoughts should be with those who may now face death due to Trump’s ban, but it is its broadness and the capriciousness that marks it out as beyond normal. This wasn’t a lengthy, worked out decision taken to tighten restrictions or suspend the taking in of Syrian refugees based on officials’ security assessments. That would be cruel, and, as no refugee from any of the countries named (Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Sudan) has been responsible for any deadly attacks in the U.S., monumentally stupid, but within the realms of the traditionally understandable. All governments can be cruel and wrong, especially if they think there’s votes in being so. However its far reaching scope and sudden implementation with not a thought for the consequences marked it out of the action of an authoritarian racist sociopath who doesn’t give a moment’s thought to the potential ramifications of his actions. The fact the order came on Holocaust Remembrance Day gives it a grim symbolism.
In this context “The United States is responsible for the United States’ policy on refugees,” was a shameful answer for a British Prime Minister to give. Not just shameful but diplomatically stupid. May spoke of “leading the world” alongside Trump. Rightly, the world will not follow.
As the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said while standing alongside May, “The refugee issue is a global issue. We have 55 million refugees worldwide at the moment…If there is someone in need you need to give them a helping hand”
Or Canada’s Justin Trudeau added, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”
Far from being a strong, global Britain, our Prime Minister looks like Richard Hammond to Trump’s Clarkson, Smee to his Hook, Billy Mitchell with misfiring nukes.
According to legal advice received by Iraq born Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi, Trump’s ban applies to British citizens born in the countries in question. This means it currently affects one of May’s own MPs, Zahawi, and gold medal winning hero Mo Farah (Somalia). Even for the sake of realpolitik, she cannot let it stand.
Politically, it shows the bankruptcy of May’s ‘Brexit means Trump’ strategy. Recent history tells us the risks of British Prime Minister’s hugging presidents too close and for all his faults, George W. Bush wasn’t a megalomaniac narcissist, nor was Tony Blair desperate for any trade deal he could get.
Trump has been president eight days. In that time he has cut off millions of women from lifesaving health care, fired the first shots in a potential trade war with Mexico, gagged scientists, and now outraged both the Muslim and civilised world. Outrages will continue to come, and Britain along with America will be diminished by them if it places trade above common decency. He signed his Muslim ban hours after his cordial meeting with May “reaffirmed” the special relationship. A day later, he is discussing increasing U.S.-Russia business links with Vladimir Putin. This is a man who is a proven serial liar — strapping our fortunes to him is, to borrow a phrase from a washed-up comedian, like tying a baby to a timebomb.
Thus far May has been a lucky politician, with her rise to the top smoothed by Brexit and Tory backstabbing. The main opposition party is at war with itself. Brexit, unlike the Scottish referendum, divided the defeated, with die-hard remainers still unreconciled, others hoping to salvage single-market membership, some resigned to losing it, pro-Europeans in her own party silent and the Labour leadership, well when Jeremy Corbyn does talk, no one understands him.
But catastrophic errors of political judgement like this remind all these different groups, from Labour MPs concerned their constituents voted leave, to Tory MPs tied to party, from Corbynistas to liberal centrists exiled from Labour or cowed within what they share and stand to lose from a hard Brexit: The real national autonomy we had when our economic prospects didn’t depend on doing deals with the devil. Taking back control is not quite so attractive when you hand it straight to a totalitarian on training wheels.
As it stands, opponents of a hard Brexit and all it entails, including sucking up to the vile Trump, remain divided. But May’s grave mistake should serve as notice. If we do not come together and provide a plausible alternative, a Brexit that maintains our ties to Europe or a chance to soberly rethink, this is what Brexit Britain’s future will look like — a desperate nation, backing up a maniacal bully in the hope he’ll chuck someone else’s lunch money our way. Not the liberal, tolerant prosperous one we love.
*Late on Saturday night Downing Street shifted their position to say they “disagreed” with the policy. Too little, too late.