On Tuesday morning in London, Republicans were reportedly paying $50,000 to have a photo taken with Donald Trump. Boris Johnson would have paid at least that much not to have one.
The UK prime minister is doing everything possible to avoid the US president during this week’s Nato summit.
While Mr Trump advanced on London, Mr Johnson fled to Salisbury, 78 miles away. It was like when the Russian army abandoned Moscow in order to escape Napoleon. That is, tactically, Mr Johnson played a blinder. If Prince Andrew had distanced himself this much from a dodgy US billionaire he’d still be on royal duties.
Traditionally, the leader hosting a Nato summit tries to be in the same city as the summit. But Nato has to evolve. With eight days to go before the general election, the last thing Mr Johnson needs is to be near Mr Trump, a man with higher disapproval ratings in the UK than Vladimir Putin, Jean-Claude Juncker and even Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.
In 2015, when he was London’s mayor, Mr Johnson joked: “The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” Now it’s the only reason he won’t go to parts of London.
Mr Trump seems to be in the UK all the time. Official visit, state visit, Nato summit, golf course inspection. Frankly, most Londoners see their friends less often than they see the US president. The Chinooks are more regular than the bin collectors. It must be very tiring for the protesters.
He arrived at Stansted airport on Monday evening, gave a press conference in the morning, sent seven tweets about impeachment, glad-handed Republican donors at London’s InterContinental hotel, then met France’s president Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Prince Charles.
All the while, Mr Johnson was pretending not to know him. “We’ll be having a series of meetings — bilateral, trilateral, all kinds,” the prime minister stuttered to a TV camera about whether he would meet the US president one-on-one. Don’t you remember, Boris, the guy who called you “Britain Trump”? The prime minister busied himself touring a Christmas market. It was the worst pretence for visiting Salisbury since the two Russian agents behind last year’s novichok attack said they wanted to see the spire.
In the afternoon, Mr Johnson did return from Salisbury to meet Mr Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel at Downing Street. But only after the 6 o’clock news had safely aired did he dare open the gates for the demander-in-chief, Mr Trump.
The context is that Nato is under severe strain. But the principle of mutual defence lives on: Mr Johnson didn’t mention impeachment and Mr Trump did his best not to carpet-bomb the Tory election campaign. “It’s going to be a very important election for this great country, but I have no thoughts on it,” the Donald said at his press conference.
If the US president will only talk about things he has thoughts on, we will be hearing much less from him. But he almost immediately reneged, by adding: “I think Boris Johnson is excellent and he’ll do a good job.”
There is some dispute about why Mr Trump says what he says. Does he lie, make mistakes, contradict himself, speak on subjects he doesn’t know, or simply change his mind? You may choose more than one answer — goodness knows, he does.
Nonetheless, the British media likes to examine his statements forensically, as if they were text messages from an ex-partner. When he said he wanted “nothing to do” with the NHS, what exactly did he mean for US-UK trade negotiations? Oh, face it, he’s just not that into us. There are BBC vox pops who give a more consistent account of US policies than he does.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday that he “could work with anybody” — probably less an olive branch to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn than a recognition of upcoming staff vacancies at the White House.
No one doubts where Mr Trump’s British allegiances lie. But many in the UK just don’t see much benefit in being close to a leader who acts unilaterally in the Middle East, undermines global efforts on climate change and can’t guarantee any post-Brexit trade deal, let alone one that Britons would like.
Mr Trump once called himself Mr Brexit; given British voters’ boredom with the B-word, he might want to consider a rebrand.