Today Theresa May becomes the first sovereign leader to visit the newly anointed President, Donald Trump.
On the surface, the two leaders could hardly be more different. Theresa May became Prime Minister by staying functionally invisible throughout the whole EU referendum and most of the Conservative leadership race while her competitors engaged in a political murder-suicide pact. Donald Trump, by contrast, embarked on an audacious and uncompromising campaign of apparent self-destruction which, contrary to all conventional logic, delivered him enough Electoral College votes wrest control of the White House.
However, the two are united by a common theme: both are in dire need of friends on the international stage. Brexit has done nothing for Theresa May’s popularity on the continent and Trump’s message of American exceptionalism, which played so well in the Rust Belt, has had quite the opposite effect on international leaders.
It is not surprising then that May is to be the first foreign leader to meet President Trump; they both need each other.
May needs to prove that Britain has a viable future outside of the EU and a speedy deal with the US would go some way towards validating the internationalist convictions of the leave campaign. As Trump sets about dismantling multilateral trade deals, first with the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and with NAFTA squarely in his sights, he needs to show that the US has a future in bilateral trade. Trump’s administration must hope that a deal with the UK will form a strong precedent for future negotiations.
This is not to say, though, that the renaissance of the “special relationship” will be a wholly balanced partnership. The reason for Trump’s preference for bilateral trading relationships is that it is easier for the US bring to bear the full weight of its economic prowess. Combined with Trump’s explicit “America first” rhetoric, Theresa May should not expect an easy ride for the UK.
In order to back up his campaign message, Trump will certainly be looking to stack the odds in favour of the US in any future relationship with the UK. This will present a problem particularly on food standards and environmental regulation, where the UK substantially differs from the US. Liberalising trade between the two countries will require a much more homogenous regulatory landscape; in international trade, one country’s consumer protection is another’s non-tariff barrier.
If Theresa May is to achieve a meaningful deal with the US, she may have to accept some serious compromises.