Time for the UK to put its big-boy pants on


In the words of my new favourite political insult, it really is time for Britain to put its big-boy pants on. The mayor of Philadelphia’s rebuke to Donald Trump was perhaps the comedy highlight of a series of very long days watching almost nothing happen on CNN. “Big news from Arizona, John, they’ve counted another 23 votes.”

The big-boy pants required in the UK relate to the humiliating neediness surrounding the order in which the president-elect speaks to other world leaders. There is something truly desperate in this hunger to be seen as America’s best friend. Did they call us first? Who got the first visit? Do they really like us? Is the relationship still special?

With each new president, I find my innards shrinking at the customary prostration. Britain is left looking like a teenager counting likes on its Instagram post. Or worse still, we look like a country sitting alone in a bedroom, checking our feed and finding out all our friends are meeting up. “Oh what, Joe Biden’s gone for bubble tea with Macron, how come I wasn’t invited?”

It must be said there really is a case for blaming the mainstream media here. The obsession with the pecking order and the endless regurgitation of the meaningless phrase “special relationship” are part of a narrative that sits with the other news organisation staple, the diplomatic snub. The British media is specially attuned to slights, seeking them out whether or not they exist.

There are few in Whitehall and Westminster with any great illusions about the so-called special relationship. The UK stands as a valued ally, definitely in the upper tier but whose place in the pecking order shifts with the foreign policy imperatives of the day. Political leaders understand this but they pander to the media game, thereby setting themselves and, more importantly, the country up for ridicule. Even when we win we lose. Theresa May got to Washington very early after Trump’s inauguration. Did we all feel good about that?

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But since there are signs of tension between Johnson and Biden and since the race to receive the call is, to a large extent, a media creation, it seems only fair to address it in classic tabloid style. So the FT proudly presents “Seven ways to spice up that Special Relationship”.

1) Surprise each other with little treats. Leave teasing notes on the president’s pillow with words like “Call me tonight. I won’t be wearing the internal markets bill negating the withdrawal agreement.”

2) Be nice to the Irish. After several hundred years, this is not going to come naturally. But it is worth the effort. Do not offer the president a bust of Oliver Cromwell for the Oval Office. Try not to use words like “Fenian”. And remember: Black and Tans, bad. And on this point, fulfil his fantasies with unexpected revelations. Propose a joint visit to Wexford to stay with your dear cousins, the O’Johnsons. Quote Heaney. “As I always say, Mr President, there is a time when hope and history rhyme.”

3) Let him know you will always be there for him. Especially if he wants to bomb Syria. Oh, and don’t talk about other presidents. No partner wants to hear about your exes. So maybe don’t mention that Britain Trump thing and lose the MAGA hat.

4) Wear something that he’ll like, a Brexit deal perhaps, a face mask, a pride ribbon, a plan for climate change. There’s nothing hotter than a junior ally making an effort for you.

5) Show empathy for his problems. “Believe me, Joe, I know what it’s like to have a gridlocked government. Have you ever considered prorogation?”

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6) Play it cool sometimes. Remember he’s gonna want that security council vote of yours one day. Never let him take it for granted.

7) Build bridges. You love bridges, remember. Think of all the ones you nearly built. The garden bridge, the bridge to Northern Ireland. You are his bridge to the rest of the EU. Oh yeah, scrub that one.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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