Even before British Prime Minister Theresa May had left Washington on January 27, having succeeded in her goal of becoming the first foreign leader received by President Trump, an argument erupted back home about the invitation she had left in his hands. She had not simply asked Trump to come to London. She had gone much further, inviting him not as a mere head of government but as head of state. For that kind of trip, his host would not be May, but a rather bigger draw: Queen Elizabeth II.
When it comes to bestowing favors on foreign leaders, the state visit is the most precious trinket in the British government pouch. The visitor gets to parade through London in an open, gilt-edged carriage. He stays in a palace or castle and is toasted at a state banquet, where the women wear tiaras and the men white tie and tails. In other words, Trump was being offered the royal treatment.
May’s critics said that the PM was showing her neediness, a quality always on display when Britain seeks affirmation that it still enjoys what it unrequitedly calls “the special relationship” with the United States, but now deepened by the Brexit-induced fear that the UK will become reliant on US trade once it completes its divorce from the European Union. That desperation had led May to play her best card too early. While Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had to wait between two and three years for that stiff-carded invitation to arrive—and George H.W. Bush never got one at all—Trump received his seven days after taking office.
To make things worse for May, and with rotten timing, Trump chose to issue his executive order banning migrants and refugees from seven mainly Muslim countries only hours after he had stood at May’s side for a joint press conference. (They even, briefly, held hands.) Instantly, May looked as if she had got too close to a bigot, and that by granting him a state visit she had rewarded his behavior. Social media in Britain branded the PM “Theresa the Appeaser.” A petition to rescind the invitation gathered nearly two million signatures at record speed.
A Downing Street official said they couldn’t possibly cancel the visit as that would “undo everything,” a phrase that suggested that dealmaker Trump had demanded the royal red carpet in return for making the right noises about future trade with post-Brexit Britain. In February, the speaker of the House of Commons said he would block Trump from addressing a joint session of Parliament—a snub that many hoped might scuttle the visit altogether.
In all this, there was perhaps one small grouping of British people…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.