As she flew into the US amid a growing row over the new US President’s backing for the torture of terror suspects, the Prime Minister insisted that it was in Britain’s interest to forge the strongest possible “special relationship” with the White House.
Speaking to reporters on her official plane, May stressed on Thursday that the UK stood by its firm opposition to the use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques and signalled she was ready to end intelligence co-operation with the CIA if they were used.
The PM, who on Friday will be the first world leader to meet Trump since he became President, said that she would be “frank” with him about the United States’ international “obligations” on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Nato and a resurgent Russia.
But when asked what an English “vicar’s daughter” would have in common with a brash New York billionaire, the PM replied: “Haven’t you ever noticed? Opposites attract.”
The remark underlined her determination to build close links with the new administration on her two-day trip, despite a fierce backlash at Trump’s fresh support for torture of detainees held by US forces.
The US President sparked anger when he declared in his first full TV interview that torture “absolutely works” in getting valuable intelligence from suspects. A draft Presidential order also plans to resurrect CIA “black site” prisons used across the globe to hold suspects.
May, who has been accused by Labour and Tory MPs of cosying up to Trump, said: “We condemn torture and my view on that won’t change – whether I’m talking to you or talking to the President.”
Pressed on whether the UK would not share intelligence with agencies that use inhumane treatment of detainees, she replied: “The UK’s position on the issue of torture and the use of torture has not changed. Our policy is the same as it has been. We condemn torture.”
Current British guidance to intelligence agencies bars cooperation with nations that use torture. When asked if the UK would no longer work with the US if it returned to using techniques such as “waterboarding”, May said: “Our guidance is very clear about the position that the UK takes, and our position has not changed.”
May was repeatedly asked if she agreed with Trump that torture “works”. She replied: “The real question you should be asking is what do we think about torture? What we think about torture is we condemn it.
“We do not believe in torture. That position has been clear for some time and that position is not going to change.”
May flew into Philadelphia on Thursday to deliver a speech to the Republican Party’s biannual “Retreat” conference, the first foreign leader to do so.
Her address was due to come just minutes after Trump’s own speech to the party, which has a majority in both Houses of Congress and is still reeling from Trump’s populist but divisive campaign for the Presidency.
Asked how she was going to avoid the trap of becoming Trump’s “poodle”, May replied: “I’m going to be very clear in everything we do. I believe the special relationship is important to us, it’s important more widely across Europe and the world.
“But I will also be very clear in the decisions I take and the conversations I have about UK interests. I’m not going to say anything different to Donald Trump to what I’m saying to you in terms of UK interests and where those lie.”
Asked if she was worried about getting too close to the new President, as Tony Blair had been with George W Bush, May replied: “Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America. The UK and the US have shared challenges, shared interests, that we can work together to deal with.
“We have a special relationship, it’s long standing, it’s existed through many different Prime Ministers and Presidents. I want to build on that relationship.”
She added that it was important to have the chance “to actually sit down with President Trump and talk to him face to face, about the interests we share, about the special relationship, about the joint challenges we both face”.
“Talking about the future of NATO is one of the issues we will discuss, as well as a whole range of other issues – our trading relationship, counter terrorism. I will be able to hear direct from him what his views are.
“I’m sure I’ll leave with a very clear picture. I want to give him a very clear picture of the UK. Also, I believe what will come out of this is a very clear determination on both sides not just to maintain the special relationship but also to build it for the future. There is a real role for the UK and the US working together.”
May said that a new UK-US trade deal in the wake of Brexit was one of her priorities, but played down that American corporations would end up privatising parts of the NHS, insisting it would remain “free at the point of use”.
With Trump this week confirming a new controversial policy of “extreme vetting” of Muslim visitors from certain countries, the PM was asked what message of reassurance she could give to a young British Muslim girl fearful over Donald Trump’s presidency .
“As far as that little girl is concerned and her life in the United Kingdom I want to see an open and tolerant society here, I want to see a country that works for everyone whatever their background,” she said.
Pressed over whether she would lobby Trump over his immigration proposals, she said: “The rules that the United States introduce will be obviously rules for the United States but I’m very clear about the opportunities I expect everyone in the UK to have.
“I will be representing the interests of everyone in the UK on a whole range of things we will talk about.”
Asked by HuffPost UK if she stood by the international agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapons programme - a deal questioned by Trump - she replied: “I think this was an important deal that was done. I think it is important that we ensure that deal is properly enforced.”
May also made clear she would not be following Trump’s controversial plan to shift the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “The United Kingdom has an embassy in Tel Aviv, the embassy is remaining in Tel Aviv,” she said.