Just one rogue tweet mentioning chlorinated chicken or NHS contracts could upend the PM's plans
It is the last thing Boris Johnson needs. Ten days out from a general election, with the polls narrowing and a serious terrorist incident to deal with, tonight the political tornado that is Donald Trump will barrel into town for Tuesday’s Nato Summit.
So far, the Prime Minister’s approach to this whirlwind has been to play ostrich and pray for minimal devastation. There are no press conferences planned, perhaps no one-on-one meeting, an occurrence thought unique in the long history of Anglo-American diplomacy. Mr Johnson is even rumoured to have requested the President avoid openly endorsing him, aware that if he is the “Marmite candidate” at this election, then Mr Trump is whatever Marmite becomes when it is distilled over molten lava by monks for a hundred years. What fun to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation - and pity the poor flunky forced to deliver the message.
But what are the chances of Mr Trump acceding to the request? Less than zero. The one inevitability with this most capricious of presidents is his capacity for disruption, less a refusal to play by the rules than a tendency to ignore the existence of a rule book altogether.
Nor is it obvious that Mr Trump would even be able to comprehend such a request, from a world leader he considers a “fantastic guy”. This conceited President simply cannot conceive of a world in which an endorsement from him could be anything other than a blessing - something which leaves the PM in a serious bind.
If Plan A of simply ignoring the presidential hurricane fails (a strategy which seems all but impossible given the pomp and ceremony of Nato’s 70th anniversary, including a reception hosted by the Queen) then how should he handle this political hot potato? The most temperamentally comfortable option for Mr Johnson would be to play nice. This Prime Minister hates confrontation and on the surface appears to have much in common with the President, a fellow blond populist with a complicated personal life and somewhat estranged relationship with the truth.
Thus far he has basked in the warmth of the presidential glow, keen to snatch the American’s attentions back from Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party and, as every British Prime Minister with any sense ought, to bolster the fragile Special Relationship. But Mr Johnson is also far smarter than his US counterpart – and has the example of his immediate predecessor of what can go wrong if he seeks to hug Mr Trump too close.
The sight of Theresa May holding hands with the President on a visit to Washington DC three years ago was perhaps the second most excruciating of her prelapsarian pre-election period, the first being an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge a few weeks earlier in which she squirmed when invited to condemn his hot mic remarks that powerful men such as he could “grab [women] by the pussy”.
The stakes are even higher during an election campaign; just one rogue tweet from Mr Trump mentioning chlorinated chicken or US firms bidding for NHS contracts will be shared ad nauseum by Labour on social media until polling day.
So what should Mr Johnson do if he wants to stop President Trump blowing his election plans asunder? Time to channel that other calculatedly-bumbling, posher-than-anything Englishman, Hugh Grant, in his Love Actually speech as Britain's PM to a fictional bombastic American president: "We may be a small country, but we’re a great one too… A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend". Mr Trump might not be thrilled but the electorate would love it, actually.