Thursday nights are a big deal for British politics buffs and television addicts. After the evening news, the late prime-time TV hours on BBC1 are dedicated to a major political panel show, Question Time, followed by a weekly politics feature roundup, This Week. If you’re a British news junkie, and especially if it’s an off night at the World Cup, the chances are you’ll be tuning in. No other evening’s programming has such a heavy political bent.
For my sins, figuring that it was a more momentous week than most, I made the mistake of watching in real time from Germany on Thursday night. What I witnessed was some of Donald Trump’s closest British allies taking the fight to the BBC’s core audience, at the exact moment that the country’s top-selling tabloid, The Sun, published a feature interview savagely undermining Theresa May’s Brexit plans. And to say that these plans were hardly strong and stable (remember that now-comical election campaign slogan?) would be an understatement — before Trump doused them in gasoline and lobbed a match.
No need to actually meet Farage, or Boris Johnson
The real man behind Brexit — forget Conservatives like Boris Johnson and David Davis — is still the former, and perhaps future, UKIP leader Nigel Farage. That’s the man who campaigned with Trump in the US at a time when politicians like Boris Johnson were still describing The Donald as “clearly out of his mind.” (Johnson would later change his tune, calling the negative British coverage of president-elect Trump a “whinge-arama” just hours after his confident US election predictions flew out of the window.)
Prior to Trump’s arrival, Farage had told anyone who would listen that the Conservative Party had issued a clear red line to Trump when negotiating the visit: Under no account was he to meet with Farage. The government has not disputed this claim, and no meeting is scheduled.
But Farage and Trump didn’t need a face-to-face meeting; a coordinated media offensive would serve their purposes far better.
Three lions on Theresa’s tail
Three hard Brexit lions went into the media fray, 24 hours after England’s semifinal defeat, hunting as a pack.
Trump tore shreds out of Theresa May’s Brexit plans, hitting all of Farage’s key talking points: The deal “wasn’t what the people voted on,” it negated the chances of a bespoke US trade deal (not that one had ever been formally offered, at least not publicly), and it overlooked citizens’ concerns about “cultural changes” initiated in Europe by EU immigration policies. Like Farage, Trump managed to steer inches clear of white supremacist territory while frantically dog-whistling to any and all attuned to that wavelength. The owner of The Sun, Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch, got precisely the ammunition he wanted for his pro-Brexit paper. Even its writers expressed surprise at how far the president went.
Meanwhile, two senior British hunter-gatherers within Trump’s global populist harem — Farage and former newspaper editor and The Apprentice winner Piers Morgan — spent the evening talking to BBC viewers, who might be reading a more substantive and sober newspaper on Friday morning.
Morgan was on the Question Time panel, lamenting the protests against Trump’s visit. He also spoke at length on Brexit, assuring the audience “I voted remain as well,” before elaborating on how Theresa May’s plan was unsatisfactory, and how Britain needed a Brexiteer prime minister who “believed in what they’re trying to achieve.” Perhaps it was a coincidence that Trump told The Sun how sad he was to see Brexiteer Boris Johnson go, and how he would make a great prime minister. Perhaps.
As for Farage, he appeared as the guest of honor on This Week, for the extended My Take Of The Week segment. He told viewers what a success Trump had made of his first 18 months in office, how noteworthy it was that Italy’s new government seemed to be getting on with the White House, and that Britain was missing its chance to get in on the new world order at the ground floor. That politics show is hosted by another member of the old guard of British journalism, Andrew Neil, chairman of the company that owns The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. The Spectator supported Brexit, and was once edited by an amibitious young journalist-MP named Boris Johnson. The Telegraph supported Brexit, and once employed an ambitious even-younger Boris Johnson as its mischief-making Brussels correspondent. But again, perhaps that’s a coincidence!
A master of manipulation
For all the power of the presidency, we’ve already seen evidence that Trump can only have a limited effect on the global juggernaut that is the United States. He can moan about NATO, and perhaps prompt some changes, but he could never withdraw from it. Nevertheless, the political newcomer and longstanding self-promoter is a master of using what leverage he has, and of lobbing the right grenade into the right battleground at precisely the wrong time. The already-wounded Theresa May now has more shrapnel to dodge.
And for a Brit like myself who had resisted and disputed the cries of “BBC pro-Brexit bias” from prominent Remainers like Andrew Adonis, A.C. Grayling and Alistair Campbell in recent months, watching along last night provided some troubling food for thought.
At least it’s not like Trump’s next stop, months after the supposedly Russian poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, is a one-on-one with Vladimir Putin! (He explicitly defended that appointment in The Sun, too, by the way.)