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Brexit means sucking up to rogues and rascals

by Hugo Dixon | 05.06.2017

As Brexit cuts our influence around the world, the UK will find it harder to speak truth to power. Instead, in our desperation to make up for lost business in Europe, we will suck up to unsavoury leaders in every other continent.

The first sign of this fawning behaviour occurred towards China soon after May entered Downing Street as prime minister. Her initial instinct was to cancel Beijing’s investment in our nuclear power industry. But, after the Chinese leadership made clear that it was not amused, our supposedly strong and stable leader made an abrupt u-turn.

May then rushed to Washington to hold hands with Donald Trump, a man with abhorrent views on women, torture, and much else besides. She did protest at how America leaked intelligence about the Manchester terrorist attack when she met the US president again at the Nato summit last month in Brussels. But when other world leaders took him to task for pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement, our brave leader’s criticism was feeble to a fault. She also refused to be drawn into the row after Trump wrongly criticised the Mayor of London for saying there was no reason to be alarmed at the increased police numbers on the street’s following Saturday’s horrific attack.

The prime minister was so keen to curry favour with the new US president that she broke all diplomatic precedent by offering him a red carpet state visit to Britain in his very first year in office. She also refused to condemn his plan to ban citizens of seven mostly-Muslim countries from coming to America – a policy liable to inflame extremist Muslim sentiment across the world. It was only after a global outcry that our strong and stable leader flip-flopped and said she didn’t agree with it after all.

Despite such kowtowing, May is unlikely to get the quick trade deal with America that she craves. After Trump met Germany’s Angela Merkel a few weeks after May’s White House visit, he was convinced that an EU trade deal had better come first.

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Hot on the heels of her US trip, May went to Ankara to pay her respects to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian ruler. Again, she was trying to drum up business. To be fair, our strong leader did also mention human rights, but the rebuke was mild enough to be blithely ignored by the Turkish president.

May then made a controversial trip to Saudi Arabia to boost security cooperation and trade links. The country has an appalling human rights record and is partly responsible for the famine in neighbouring Yemen. What’s more, it is one of the main funders of jihadi groups. But the prime minister has yet to publish an official report into how extremists get financed, perhaps because she doesn’t want to ruffle her Saudi friends’ feathers.

At the same time as she was in the Middle East, Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, was claiming “shared values” with the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Almost 9,000 people, many small-time drugs users and dealers, have been killed in the country since that brutal president took office.

Some will try to justify all this on the basis of realpolitik. But what about our values such as human rights, tolerance and rule of law? Merkel did not hesitate to spell them out to Trump when he was elected. No such luck from May.

Of course, Britain was fawning to dictators and doing arms deals with unsavoury regimes long before the Brexit vote. But quitting the EU means both losing privileged access to the biggest global market and having less clout to stand up to strongmen in the rest of the world. So, sadly, we can expect more sucking up in the years ahead. That, it seems, is what May means by Global Britain.

This article is a modification of a piece that appeared in January

This article was updated on June 5 to take account of Trump pulling out of the climate change accord, Trump’s attack on the Mayor of London and May’s failure to publish a report into the funding of jihadis. It was tweaked after May refused to be drawn into the row between Trump and the Mayor of London.