LONDON â€” U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patelâ€™s condemnation of the U.S. president personally on Thursday morning marked a watershed moment for Boris Johnsonâ€™s government.
â€œHis comments directly led to the violence,â€ Patel told the BBC, following Wednesdayâ€™s deadly riot at the Capitol Building. â€œSo far he has failed to condemn that violence and that is completely wrong.â€
Senior Conservatives had condemned the violence and professed support for American democracy â€”Â Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab praised the certification of the election result following the â€œshocking eventsâ€ â€” but had stopped short of blaming the president. Johnson himself called the scenes â€œdisgracefulâ€ (but so far he hasnâ€™t singled out Trumpâ€™s role in inciting them).
No more are we ever likely to hear Johnson or his ministers suggest â€”Â as they have in the past â€” that Trump is a politician from whom much could be learned. As recently as June 2018, while foreign secretary in Theresa Mayâ€™s administration, Johnson told a private dinner he was â€œincreasingly admiringâ€ of Trump, that there was â€œmethod in his madnessâ€ and that it would be no bad thing if he took over the Brexit talks (Trump later endorsed Johnsonâ€™s Tory leadership bid). The previous year Johnson had told the U.S. ambassador of his view that Trump was indeed â€œmaking America great again.â€
Tory Brexiteers chimed in that Trump was best for the U.K. because he backed the countryâ€™s split with the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, argued that without the president at the helm the U.S. would seek to â€œfrustrateâ€ Brexit. â€œIt is our national good fortune that the president with whom we will develop this new arrangement is Mr. Trump,â€ he said, referring to the post-Brexit evolution of the â€œspecial relationshipâ€ with Washington. Backbencher Philip Davies said on the eve of the U.S. election that â€œit is in the U.K.â€™s best interests if Trump wins.â€
Those comments will come under the spotlight again in the coming days and weeks as the U.K.â€™s opposition parties portray Johnson and many of his ministers as enablers of Trump; allies who went beyond the standard diplomatic norms and personally endorsed the presidentâ€™s approach and ideology and who now appear â€” in the light of Trumpâ€™s actions on Wednesday â€” to have been either deeply naÃ¯ve or plain wrong-headed.
â€œThe prime minister and senior members of the government have spent four years encouraging a president who consistently preached hate and division, scapegoated minorities and attacked and undermined democracy, in a desperate bid to become his closest ally,â€ said Lisa Nandy, the Labour oppositionâ€™s shadow foreign secretary. Her criticism will be echoed by other parties and political figures who never courted Trump or indeed, gained international notoriety by locking horns with him, like Scotlandâ€™s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish National Party, or Londonâ€™s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. Â
Ministersâ€™ defense will be that it is the job of any U.K. government to cultivate close relations with the U.S. president of the day, whomever they may be. Conservative officials also pointed out, with some justification, that itâ€™s easy for opposition parties to take the moral high ground; not always so for a government that has to work with the U.K.â€™s most important ally to defend the national interest. Now that Trump is headed for the exit â€” and in the light of the destruction wrought by his supporters on Wednesday â€” you can expect the tone to harden, as Patelâ€™s comments demonstrate.
But critics will ask why it took so long. Even on the day Joe Biden was declared winner of the election, Raab reserved some space in his statement congratulating Biden to praise Trump for a hard-fought election (despite the fact the president had already begun making the baseless accusations of voter fraud that culminated in Wednesdayâ€™s violence).
Johnson will be confident of riding out any political criticism domestically over his one-time political closeness to Trump. Facing a coronavirus tsunami that threatens to overwhelm hospitals, the U.K. frankly has more pressing concerns.
But in a year in which his government is hoping to focus on the international stage, Johnson will be hoping the U.K.â€™s allies (not least President-elect Biden) will be able overlook some of the things he once said about a Trump presidency that has now ended in such infamy.