U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May refused to back down in the face of criticism from President Donald Trump as she walked a tightrope between her opposition to extremism “in all its forms” and the need for a trade deal with the U.S. after Brexit.
May, who repeated that Trump was wrong to retweet propaganda from a far-right British anti-Muslim group, said the close alliance between the two countries will endure. A diplomatic spat flared overnight when Trump tweeted that May should mind her own business after her spokesman reproached him over his retweets of Britain First, a fringe political group.
“Britain First is a hateful organization, it seeks to spread division and distrust amongst our communities.” May told reporters in Amman, Jordan. “The fact that we work together does not mean we’re afraid to say when we we think the U.S. has got it wrong and we’re very clear with them. I’m very clear that retweeting Britain First was the wrong thing to do.”
Trump’s interventions add to pressure on May’s beleaguered premiership just as she seemed to be clawing back some credibility by delivering movement on stalled divorce talks with the European Union.
She will need Trump to help deliver a swift trade deal after Brexit and, at the very moment she was in the Middle East trying to project the image of Britain as a player on the world stage, he undermined her.
Trump’s attack puts May in an uncomfortable position over relations with a historic ally with whom the U.K. has a “special relationship” but whose leader more often than not has caused her embarrassment.
It presents a sharp contrast with the meeting between the two leaders earlier this year when she was the first foreign leader at the Trump White House. Then he held her hand and extolled the close ties between the two countries.
Ever since, there has been an uneasy relationship between the two leaders, one of whom is at home on social media and uses it to project himself around the world and the other who rarely looks at it.
Trump was slapped down by May’s office earlier this year when he tweeted that former UKIP leader Nigel Farage should be made U.S. ambassador and she was forced to defend Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London and a member of the opposition Labour party, just days before the June general election in the wake of a terror attack on London.
In a pushback at Trump, May made clear that she sees far-right extremism of the type promoted by Trump’s retweets as a threat that must be tackled alongside Islamist extremism.
“We must all take seriously the threat that far right groups pose both in terms of the terrorist threat that is posed by those groups and the necessity of dealing with extremist material that is far-right as well,” she said. “In the United Kingdom we take the far right very seriously and that’s why we ensure we deal with these threats and this extremism wherever it comes and whatever its source.”
The prime minister has shown “absolute clarity” in her criticism of Trump, her spokesman James Slack told reporters in London on Thursday. May was “very clear that it was wrong to tweet these videos but as we’ve also said, the United States is one of our closest most special allies.”
The dispute matters because it’s allies like the U.S. that Britain is seeking closer relations with as the country negotiates its exit from the European Union, the world’s largest trading bloc. May has been criticized domestically for cosying up to Trump, and his slapdown of a key ally suggests her efforts have born little success.
Her three-day visit took in three predominantly Muslim allies which she views as key to the fight against Islamic State and the spread of fundamentalist terrorism. That left her with the conundrum of whether to use fighting talk against Trump and his re-posting of anti-Islam videos, or whether to dampen a growing row with the world’s most powerful country.
“The rich and historic relationship between Britain and its allies in the Middle East has been the bedrock of our shared security and prosperity for generations,” May said in in Amman. “Today as extremists plot terrorist attacks from this region, they are not only targeting people here in the countries of the Middle East, but targeting people on the streets of Britain too.”
May is also under increasing pressure over a proposed state visit by Trump, which caused a domestic backlash, with a petition attracting 1.8 million signatures calling for him not to be granted the honor.
The problem for May is that the invitation was offered by the Queen and has been accepted, presenting the possibility of embarrassment at Buckingham Palace whether it goes ahead or not. “An invitation for a state visit has been extended and has been accepted,” May said before adding that no date has yet been set.
“What is most damaging to May is the indecent haste with which he was invited,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in London.
“She did the right thing by making the statement that he was wrong,” he said. “But ultimately this is a problem of her own making coming back to haunt her. However right she is about this issue she shouldn’t have been first out of the blocks to meet him and invite him on a state visit.”