Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to the White House gave body language analysts plenty to talk about and led many to draw comparisons with Theresa May’s 2017 trip.
Poor old Theresa May goes to Washington, does a bit of involuntary hand-holding with Donald Trump, and gets enduringly hammered for it. Emmanuel Macron goes beyond hand-holding to virtual full-on snog mode, treats bromance body language analysts to a whole galaxy of gooey gestures, subjects himself to the patronising removal of imaginary dandruff, and yet garners positive coverage all over the planet.
True, there was mild annoyance among some in France that it was a bit Yuck, but by and large the love-in with one of the most hated leaders on earth went well for one of the most liked. Which is why poor Theresa must surely have felt a tad miffed, and UK diplomats alarmed that the special relationship seemed to be drifting across the Channel, which would not be terribly good for post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’.
The reason for the difference is the broader context. Because of his youth, the manner of his win, his charisma, energy and boldness on policy, Macron is seen by fellow leaders as a bit special, and as a result his country has had something of a boost. In the leadership stakes, May is viewed by her peers as far from top rank and that, allied to the general view of every significant leader on the planet (though Putin likes it) that Brexit is a disastrous mistake, means the UK is emanating decline.
Her hand-holding was accompanied by the sense of a weaker partner desperate to get Trump to speak on our ‘special relationship,’ fearful of doing anything to upset him, with the invite to a State visit (RIP) to make sure he got the message that she would do anything to keep his favour.
Macron, on the other hand, showed Trump overwhelming Gallic charm, on the style side of things, but when it came to substance, he showed he has balls of steel. Standing up in front of Congress, and setting out home truths on nationalism, Iran, climate change and much else, was the act of a gutsy politician clear in his beliefs, and determined to use the power the French people have invested in him.
It may backfire. Trump is unpredictable, and the giant ego might turn if he suddenly realises the substance of policy positions mattered more than the words and pictures of the love-in. But Macron’s calculation is that Trump is more likely to remember the invite to the Bastille Day parade, the dinner at the Eiffel Tower, the warm words in the Oval Office. And he is almost certainly right.
As to where it all leaves us: when my mother died I found she had kept all my school reports. One entry caught my eye… History. Excellent essay on the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I fear if we continue our current trajectory, future generations will be confronted by the exam question: ‘To what extent was Brexit responsible for Britain’s decline from major global player to its current standing in the world?’
It is not often that I come out of a television studio and turn on my phone to a rash of texts and emails asking me how I managed to stay so calm. More often it’s ‘I think you went OTT’ The interview was on Newsnight, and it says something about the normalisation of the BBC’s new policy – ‘if it’s bad for Brexit, it ain’t on the Beeb’ – that I was not nearly as shocked as those who had been watching. ‘You should have hit him,’ was one – from a lawyer!
The discussion followed an interesting film about Russia’s propaganda machine. I made the point that though the Russians were the worst offenders, Trump was normalising lying in US politics, and here Brexit was partly won by lies. Presenter Evan Davis raised a hand, insisting: ‘I don’t want to get into an argument about Brexit.’ True, a fierier me would have used it as a peg to create just that, an argument about Brexit, but I let him take it back to Russia, and then to where I suspect he had wanted to take it from the start, Iraq. He said: ‘I am going to ask the question the entire audience is thinking.’ I did manage to ask him how he knew what everyone was thinking, and whether some might not be thinking how odd it was that he didn’t want to talk about lies and Brexit. His question was whether it was the lack of trust caused by our/my communications on Iraq that created ‘a hostile environment to truth’ and so opened the door to the kind of propaganda operations now being run by Russia. This idea of moral equivalence between a British government getting something wrong, and apologising – the film had shown Tony Blair apologising for the failure to find WMD in Iraq – and Russia and Syria using chemical weapons and then flat-out denying it, is strange. If there was equivalence, my answer, instead of the polite, rational analysis I gave, would have been: ‘What the hell are you talking about, Evan? No WMD? How can you say there were no WMD? Did you not see the film on MoDTV of our troops being gassed by Saddam? Why are you spreading false anti-Western propaganda?’ But I didn’t, because there is no such equivalence. And next time, can we talk about lies and Brexit please?
To Hexham Book Festival with Paul Fletcher, former Burnley player, to talk about our football and terrorism novel, Saturday Bloody Saturday. But when it came to the Q and A, virtually every single question was about Brexit. ‘Ah,’ a Brextremist might imagine, ‘people telling you to shut up, suck it up, stop behaving like a Japanese PoW, and support the Brexit deal?’ Au contraire. Not one voice in support of what was happening. Instead, ‘how do we stop it? Why aren’t Labour doing more to oppose it? How it is anti-democratic to have another vote?’ – it was like a The New European editorial meeting! In the referendum, the Leave side tapped into the country’s anger. If we do manage to win the right for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal – and this audience certainly wanted one – the anger will be on our side. But people need to stay angry, and not bow to fatalism. I asked for a show of hands on the question: ‘Do you think Theresa May is doing a good job as Prime Minister?’ Not one single hand went up. I asked: ‘Do you think Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister?’ One hand up. This is unsustainable. It suggests our politics is broken. And Brexit, with both main parties basically headed in the same direction, and one they know to be wrong, is doing most of the breaking.
Talking of football, something I do a lot, I got a lesson on the subject last week. I was speaking at a sixth form college in Lancashire, as part of the excellent Speakers for Schools project started by journalist Robert Peston to get more outside speakers into state schools. I mentioned Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp – look up his anti-Brexit interview on Channel 4 if you haven’t seen it – and then discovered on a show of hands that maybe 35% of the audience didn’t know who he was. It was much the same for Pep Guardiola of Manchester City. When I asked who in the audience had no interest in football at all, not far off a half of the hands went up! My surprise was mixed with sympathy at what they’re missing.
PS:. I asked the students the same question as I asked the people of Hexham. Same answer. Zero for May. A handful for Corbyn to be PM.