Even before President Trump set foot in London on Thursday, he weighed in on one of the most contentious issues in British politics: “Brexit.”
Trump, in Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, said that after reading up on Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Britain’s exit from the European Union, he was not sure Britons were getting what 52% of voters favored in June 2016.
“Brexit is Brexit,” he told reporters at the end of the summit. “The people voted to break it up, so I would imagine that is what they’ll do, but maybe they are taking a different route. I don’t know if that’s what they voted for.”
The comments came as May dealt with the resignations this week of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who quit in protest of plans for what he considers a so-called soft Brexit that would maintain close trade ties with Europe, and another Cabinet member, David Davis, who was responsible for overseeing Brexit.
“I’m going to a pretty hot spot right now, right?” Trump said before heading for Britain.
His Brexit comments were immediately seized upon — and praised — by former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who tweeted that Trump was “absolutely right.”
But they were unhelpful to May, who faces the prospect of a revolt from pro-Brexit lawmakers within her party.
May’s government published a comprehensive 104-page document Thursday that sets out what kind of relationship Britain wants with the EU when it leaves the 28-member bloc, which is expected in March 2019.
It “absolutely delivers on the Brexit that people voted for,” May said after Trump’s remarks. “They voted for us to take back control of our money, our law and our borders and that’s exactly what we will do.”
The extent to which “Brexit means Brexit” is a hugely contentious issue in Britain.
The debate includes those who want to retain close economic relations with the EU and remain part of the customs union and single market, a plan which is colloquially known as a “soft Brexit.” Those with opposing views include the Euroskeptic wing of May’s Conservative Party and other so-called Brexiteers who want a clean break so the country can forge new trade agreements with other nations, and make its own laws and control immigration.
Johnson, who Trump has said he would like to contact during his four days in Britain, was one of the most high-profile members of the “Leave” camp during the referendum campaign and has long been a thorn in May’s side.
He quit shortly after Davis did, saying the dream of leaving the EU was ”dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt” and he could no longer support the government’s plan.
Trump has praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union as a “great thing” and Farage, who spearheaded the Leave campaign, appeared alongside Trump during his election campaign.
May is struggling to maintain unity within her party, which does not have a parliamentary majority, while also negotiating with EU leaders who in some cases feel they have nothing to gain by making any concessions to Britain.
During a 12-hour Cabinet meeting Friday, May had secured approval for a softer version of Brexit that she said was necessary to ensure the future economic prosperity of the country. But within days her party appeared in disarray.
In response to Trump’s visit, some protests were held Thursday and tens of thousands of anti-Trump protesters are expected to take to the streets of London and other major cities Friday. Many Britons have been upset by Trump’s behavior since he became president in January 2017 for reasons including his travel ban on visitors to the U.S. from some majority Muslim countries and his Twitter comments against London Mayor Sadiq Khan after the London Bridge terrorist attacks in June 2017.
Considering the political turmoil faced by the May government, this did not seem like the best time for a Trump visit, said Peter Trubowitz, director of the United States Center at the London School of Economics.
“If the prime minister had an opportunity to rewrite the script this week, there wouldn’t be a visit from Donald Trump,” Trubowitz said,
Nevertheless, on Thursday evening, Trump was with May for a welcome ceremony at Blenheim Palace, both leaders dressed in fine outfits ahead of a lavish dinner with about 150 invited guests, including Britain’s top business leaders.
They were scheduled to meet privately Friday at the prime minister’s country retreat Chequers, where building strong trade ties post-Brexit was expected to be on the agenda.
Boyle is a special correspondent.