Capitol riot forces UK Tories to ditch Trump

LONDON — U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s condemnation of the U.S. president personally on Thursday morning marked a watershed moment for Boris Johnson’s government.

“His comments directly led to the violence,” Patel told the BBC, following Wednesday’s deadly riot at the Capitol Building. “So far he has failed to condemn that violence and that is completely wrong.”

Senior Conservatives had condemned the violence and professed support for American democracy — Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab praised the certification of the election result following the “shocking events” — but had stopped short of blaming the president. Johnson himself called the scenes “disgraceful” (but so far he hasn’t singled out Trump’s role in inciting them).

No more are we ever likely to hear Johnson or his ministers suggest — as they have in the past — that Trump is a politician from whom much could be learned. As recently as June 2018, while foreign secretary in Theresa May’s administration, Johnson told a private dinner he was “increasingly admiring” of Trump, that there was “method in his madness” and that it would be no bad thing if he took over the Brexit talks (Trump later endorsed Johnson’s Tory leadership bid). The previous year Johnson had told the U.S. ambassador of his view that Trump was indeed “making America great again.”

Tory Brexiteers chimed in that Trump was best for the U.K. because he backed the country’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 “frustrate” Brexit. “It is our national good fortune that the president with whom we will develop this new arrangement is Mr. Trump,” he said, referring to the post-Brexit evolution of the “special relationship” with Washington. Backbencher Philip Davies said on the eve of the U.S. election that “it is in the U.K.’s best interests if Trump wins.”

Those comments will come under the spotlight again in the coming days and weeks as the U.K.’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 president’s approach and ideology and who now appear — in the light of Trump’s actions on Wednesday — to have been either deeply naïve or plain wrong-headed.

“The 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,” said Lisa Nandy, the Labour opposition’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 Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish National Party, or London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.  

Ministers’ 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 it’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.’s most important ally to defend the national interest. Now that Trump is headed for the exit — and in the light of the destruction wrought by his supporters on Wednesday — you can expect the tone to harden, as Patel’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 Wednesday’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.’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.



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