Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain had little choice but to make nice with President Trump, but her humiliating performance in the British election on Thursday provides yet another warning against getting too close to the undisciplined American president. Trump has a habit of dragging down his own allies. Republicans seeking to navigate the turbulent domestic politics of the Trump presidency might want to take notice.
May, who became prime minister last year after Britons voted to leave the European Union, has tried to build a warm relationship with Trump. She has avoided joining other world leaders, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, in criticizing him. She even invited Trump to a state dinner with the queen, a controversial move. It’s one thing to work with Trump — that’s May’s job, after all — but it’s another, as some critics in Britain have put it, to “roll out the red carpet.”
Her thanks came last week, with Trump’s petulant response to a recent terrorist attack in London. With the city in mourning, he launched a tone-deaf and inaccurate Twitter broadside against its mayor. Imagine the reaction in Boston if a foreign leader had trolled Tom Menino after the Marathon bombing, and you get a sense of how Trump’s antics went over in London. They put May on the defensive in the last week of the election campaign.
May had other political problems, including her wooden performance on the campaign trail, and the extent to which Trump’s words hurt her party is impossible to measure. Interestingly, though, her Conservative Party suffered its sharpest declines in the London area, down more than 10 percentage points in some constituencies, according to the BBC.
Although diminished, May will remain prime minister. She called the election expecting to increase the size of the Conservative majority in Parliament, but instead lost seats. Conservatives claimed 319 seats, compared to 261 for Labour. May will have to rely on support from a third party in Northern Ireland to govern, which would have been an almost unthinkable outcome six weeks ago. The results raise the prospect of continued political uncertainty in Britain and inject even more uncertainty into the negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU.
That has consequences, including for Washington: Britain has been America’s closest security ally, and a weakened Britain is a weakened United States.
The lesson of it all — that politicians who cuddle up too close to Trump risk being tainted by his outrage de jour — probably won’t be lost on other foreign leaders. As Trump tries to survive growing domestic scandals and push an unpopular agenda through Congress, Capitol Hill Republicans might also want to think twice before putting any more of their own political capital on the line. For Donald Trump, loyalty is a one-way street, and anyone who doesn’t see that by now clearly isn’t paying attention.