When British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with President Trump at the White House Friday, her goals will include providing definitive proof at home that her government can succeed after breaking away from the European Union.
Discussion of trade with the United States is expected to be high on May's agenda, along with the global fight against terrorism and the future of NATO. British voters in June favored breaking away from the 28-nation EU and the nation is faced with negotiating its existence post-“Brexit.”
The planned meeting also will be monitored by many in Britain because of concerns about Trump’s derogatory behavior toward women, perhaps best remembered by a 2005 video in which he talked about groping them without concern for retribution because of his celebrity status.
In Britain, as elsewhere, those statements have been met with bafflement and anger.
Hundreds of thousands of women participated in rallies in Washington and around the world — including London — on Saturday, the day after Trump’s inauguration, to show unity regarding women’s rights and other issues such as healthcare, environmental concerns and racial justice.
May, leader of the Conservative Party, was reluctant to delve too far into the matter during an interview Sunday with BBC TV, though she has championed women’s rights during much of her political career.
“I think the biggest statement that will be made about the role of women is the fact that I will be there as a female prime minister of the United Kingdom directly talking to him about the interests that we share,” May said.
“Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable I will not be afraid to say that to Donald Trump,” she said.
Organizers of the London women’s march have asked their supporters to bombard May with letters, postcards and emails imploring her to “categorically reaffirm the U.K.’s commitment to human rights” when she meets Trump.
They describe it as the first act in a global grassroots movement to address the economic divisions and inequalities that enabled Trump to win the November election and in their own way also swayed a majority of British voters to vote to leave the EU.
British prime ministers have long sought to forge a close working relationship with their U.S. counterparts and this meeting comes at a particularly crucial moment in Britain as May seeks to sever the country's decades-old ties to the European Union and seek out new prosperous trade alliances elsewhere in the world.
With that vision in mind, Trump’s comments in his inauguration speech about putting “America First” seem at odds with her desire to build a “Global Britain.” May’s policy chief, George Freeman, described the inauguration speech as “unusually and deliberately divisive and controversial.”
May has sought to downplay any divisions, saying pragmatically that the speech merely had a “very clear message to it” and every leader seeks to put the interest of their people first.
“We share the challenges, we see the threats and we have worked together in the past,” she said. “And we will in the future.”
The meeting has been weeks in the planning — May sent two of her joint chiefs of staff to New York and Washington in December to meet the then president-elect’s team.
U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who spearheaded the campaign for Britain to leave the EU and who described the June 23 referendum as Britain’s independence Day, has already met with Trump.
Trump’s praise of Britain’s vote to leave the bloc may make May's negotiating task easier, especially given that former President Obama had said Britain would be "at the back of the queue" for trade talks if it voted to leave.
But this meeting will also have to deal with issues like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance Trump has described as “obsolete,” but which Britain considers pivotal to Western defense.
"I will be talking to Donald Trump about the issues that we share, about how we can build on the special relationship," May said. "It's the special relationship that also enables us to say when we do find things unacceptable."
Boyle is a special correspondent.