Back in March last year British politics appeared slightly more stable than it does today. Sure, we were in an uncertain territory in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum, but generally, former Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in control.
Yet, when I arrived in Washington having arranged to interview a range of American commentators on their thoughts towards the historic notion of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, a few admitted that many Americans were uninterested and even unaware of the ins and outs of British politics. “The UK was far more important to the US back in the 1970s – the special relationship was still real back then,” one journalist revealed. Apparently, many U.S. citizens wouldn’t even have had a clue who Mr. Cameron was, despite the fact that he’d held office for over half a decade.
Fast forward a year or so and, as a Brit, I can only wonder what the state of British politics looks like from the outside. Having lost a referendum that he should have won, Mr. Cameron was forced to resign last summer and hand over to former Home Secretary, Theresa May. Having elected a new Conservative leader, the biggest hurdle facing Downing Street for the past six months has been the complex negotiations of navigating the Brexit process. In addition to that, having gambled her luck away by calling an unexpected general election last month, Mrs. May now finds herself governing without a majority, but supported by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
The reliance on DUP support will be a hindrance to the Conservatives for as long as they remain in office, and their involvement has already resulted in a number of key measures from the Tory manifesto being dropped. Mrs. May campaigned to lead a “strong and stable” government, promising to lead in favor of the many rather than the “privileged few.” Yet her government at present couldn’t be further away from the strength and stability that Britain currently needs.
If Britain had declined in significance back in early 2016, what are the prospects for the special relationship in 2017? Having been one of the first to meet with President Donald J. Trump soon after his election to the Oval Office, Downing Street was clearly keen to strengthen the ties of the Anglo-American alliance. Regardless of who graced the White House, the U.S. is still the UK’s strongest ally.
Interestingly, back in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher utilized trips to the Oval Office in an attempt to charm the Washington elite prior to her election as PM. Being seen in a favorable light in the American press was a key tactic that raised her popularity back home.
Her forceful nature, however, did not go down well with President Jimmy Carter or his Vice-President, Walter Mondale, who revealed to me earlier this year: “I remember Thatcher making a courtesy call on President Carter in the White House as the new Conservative leader. She was not yet the PM, yet still very imperious, and I thought, almost insulting. Here was Carter, a seasoned President, being called to the mat by Thatcher. She wasn’t listening. She was talking. Carter had generously granted her the interview. I thought she abused the courtesy.”
By continuing to remain as PM despite failing to win an overall majority, in some ways Mrs. May is currently displaying the same characteristics as Mrs. Thatcher, who refused to deter from her no-nonsense approach.
Although the relationship has altered in significance over the past few decades, the UK has historically been keen to do business with America. Throughout the Callaghan-Carter and Reagan-Thatcher years, Britain was seen as a stable ally, even if the U.S. remained the bigger player on the international stage. But in today’s uncertain world, though there is an alliance of sorts, Britain and America have inevitably drifted apart.
Given that President Trump has called off his planned state visit to the UK, one suspects that relations could be stronger between him and the PM. One factor that could enhance Britain’s standing in American eyes is if Mrs. May is able to successfully negotiate Brexit and ensure that Britain receives a deal that sits well with those who chose to vote Remain. If she can prove her strength in what is one of the most uncertain periods in modern British history, she may regain the trust of the British electorate, and the respect of skeptical international leaders. It’s a big if though.
With senior Conservatives already wondering whether she has the ability to confidently lead after having failed to win an election that was predicted to be guaranteed, Mrs. May now has to govern knowing that, at any moment, the rumblings of a leadership challenge may not be far away.