Emboldened Trump has eye on change in Downing Street

Analysis: ‘Special relationship’ will survive US president’s extraordinary attack on UK ambassador

Donald Trump with Theresa May on the second day of his three-day state visit to the UK in June. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump with Theresa May on the second day of his three-day state visit to the UK in June. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

Standing commandingly on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington is Britain’s embassy to the United States. The imposing compound is one of the largest diplomatic edifices in the city, the statue of Winston Churchill outside a symbol of the “special relationship” between the two countries.

Britain’s diplomatic machine worldwide is a formidable operation and no more so than in Washington. More than 400 people work in the embassy. Many do not have access to secured floors in the building where military personnel, many in uniform, are based – a reminder of Britain’s close military ties with Washington and its membership of the “five eyes” intelligence alliance that also includes Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

It is also the hub of a vibrant social scene. At a recent event attended by The Irish Times, Kellyanne Conway was mingling with IMF chief Christine Lagarde and other luminaries beneath the Andy Warhol portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that hangs at the residence. Several other senior members of the Trump administration have attended events at the embassy despite Donald Trump’s assertion that ambassador Kim Darroch is not liked in DC.

This week’s escalating stand-off between the US president and Sir Kim threatens to undermine one of Britain’s most-trusted relationships.

Like all diplomatic missions in Washington, the British embassy has treaded a fine line since Trump’s inauguration – working to keep its relationship with the United States on track, while at the same time negotiating a tricky balance as the US administration breaks with diplomatic norms and policy precedents.

Britain has found itself at odds with Washington on a range of issues including the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. As long as it remains a full member of the European Union, it is still an active member of the European community in Washington. Sir Kim attends meetings of all EU member state ambassadors hosted by the EU ambassador to Washington, working collectively on issues such as trade.

But Britain’s relationship with the United States has an added dimension given the rise of the Brexit Party and a right-wing Conservative government in London that caters for more pro-Trump sympathies than others in Europe.

Extraordinary attacks

Trump’s anticipation of the new regime in Downing Street may explain his extraordinary attacks on the British ambassador, whom he described as a “pompous fool” on Tuesday.

The US president has made known his admiration for Boris Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. It is well known that Trump likes to ally himself with similarly-minded leaders. His schedule at the recent G20 summit is a case in point. Top of the agenda were meetings with Brazil’s strongman president Jair Bolsonaro, Australia’s recently re-elected right-wing prime minister Scott Morrison and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

An emboldened Trump evidently feels he is in a position to lash out at Sir Kim who, at 65, is approaching retirement. While the British government has said it stands by one of its top diplomats, a new administration in Downing Street will decide who represents her majesty’s government in Washington in the coming months.

Donald Trump is making clear his views on what kind of figure he wants. Whether the new leadership in London will take heed remains to be seen.

Any move to appoint an outsider to the post would be an admission that the British government no longer has faith in its own civil service, and is instead willing to pander to Donald Trump.

Though the escalating tensions between the Trump administration and the current British ambassador gained plenty of news coverage in the United States, by Tuesday most media outlets were moving on. Trump was not asked about the issue during a media opportunity with the Emir of Qatar at lunchtime on Tuesday, for example.

Given the US president’s erratic behaviour, the current controversy is likely to be forgotten relatively quickly in the United States. Like many traditional alliances that have come under pressure since Trump’s election, Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States will ultimately survive the Trump presidency.

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