Trump win increases pressure on May and UK

by Michael Prest | 09.11.2016

Brexiteers wasted no time in hailing Donald Trump’s surprise US presidential election victory. Nigel Farage, returned in yet another incarnation as interim leader of UKIP, said it was “bigger than Brexit”. He tweeted his congratulations and, astonishingly, said on television that he would like to be Trump’s ambassador to the EU. He’s obviously having a lot of fun.

It’s all far less entertaining for the UK as a whole, though. Trump’s win will unquestionably embolden Brexiters and like-minded movements across Europe. They see their pitchfork rebellion against the “establishment” gaining momentum. But far from simplifying the UK’s Brexit negotiations, as Leavers no doubt expect, events across the Atlantic and the way they are being echoed here risk greatly complicating the position of the UK and Theresa May’s government.

Underlying Brexit is a tension between anti-EU politics and economic rationality. Even if we are on course to pull out of the EU, it’s imperative to avoid an economically destructive departure. Our EU partners don’t want that either. In so far as it’s been possible to make sense of the government’s position, it seems that a close economic relationship is preferred to an arms-length one, for example just trading under World Trade Organisation rules.

But the politics of Brexit could make a close economic relationship with the EU harder to achieve – as it could with cooperation over security, migration and a host of other issues. First, the sense that history is on their side will encourage Brexiters to step up their pressure on the government to make a swift and damaging break with the EU. Many MPs, already in acute need of a backbone transplant to hold the government to account over Brexit, may lose what resolve they have under increased outside pressure. The planned march on the Supreme Court could be just a harbinger of populist action.

Second, Trump’s election risks causing a slowdown in the US economy. Whatever policies Trump eventually pursues, the uncertainty will hit investment and trade in the meantime. When the US economy falters, the world economy falters. UK economic growth is already expected to fall next year and a Trump administration could make it worse. Far from the UK economy being “fundamentally strong”, as the Prime Minister claims, it is in fact highly vulnerable at the moment to shocks. Moreover, during the Referendum campaign Brexiteers were supremely confident that the UK could do a trade deal with the US. An anti-free trade President Trump may think differently. All this further reduces May’s room for manoeuvre.

Sadly, the tone and quality of the Brexit debate may deteriorate further. The enthusiasm with which the pro-Brexit press has greeted Trump’s election does not bode well. Attitudes towards migrants could harden – witness already the easy ride given to the government over its treatment of child refugees in the Jungle camp in Calais. We may see more insults and attacks on our streets directed at anyone whose face doesn’t fit. It may be harder to have a sensible discussion over the economy’s labour needs and where those workers are to come from. Such a febrile atmosphere is not conducive to the very sober debate and policymaking the country needs at this seminal point in its history.

Brexiteers are rejoicing, but the government and all responsible citizens should not. Irrespective of the merits of American voters’ decision for their own country, the UK’s relationship with its friends and neighbours in the rest of Europe is likely to be more fraught than ever. British politicians will need to show much more leadership and courage than has been evident recently if we are to find a safe passage through the mounting storm.

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