Within seconds of Theresa May’s plane touching down at Heathrow on Saturday night, she and her team knew that she’d flown back into a political storm. Hurricane Donald, a huge weather system that started over Washington, had crossed the Atlantic and just hit Britain in earnest.
As soon as No.10 smartphones connected to a mobile signal, their screens flashed into life with fresh news of the backlash at Donald Trump’s travel ban. And the backlash was not from the usual opponents, but from May’s own Tory MPs.
As Downing Street aides read their Twitter timelines, they could see a flood of messages condemning the American edict banning all citizens of seven ‘Muslim-majority’ states, as well as all Syrian refugees. Backbenchers Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston had been scathing. But most worrying of all was a tweet by Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for the impeccably English constituency of Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.
At 7.50pm Zahawi had tweeted: “What if you are British of Iraqi origin, as I am? A sad sad day to feel like a second class citizen! Sad day for the USA.” Worse still, the MP had retweeted a message from former British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher. Complete with a photo of Winston Churchill, it quoted the wartime PM: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”.
The bitter irony was not lost on No.10. Less than 24 hours earlier, May had been in the Oval Office of the White House, posing alongside a bust of Churchill with Trump. Restored to the President’s inner sanctum after a temporary exile under Obama, the bronze was meant to symbolise the restoration of the “special relationship” between the UK and the US. Now here were Churchill’s own words being used against Trump.
May’s aides had felt that their two-day trip to the US had been a success. Not only was she the first foreign leader to secure a visit to the Trump White House, she had managed to get the President to say he was “100%” behind Nato, that he would not resume torture of terror suspects, and that it was “too early” to lift sanctions imposed on Russia over its Ukraine invasion.
All were big ticks off the shopping list of British interests drafted by the No.10 team. Add to that an agreement to start informal talks on a US-UK trade deal post-Brexit and it was clear why May’s team were pleased as their plane left Washington on Friday night.
But within hours of her departure, the White House had issued an executive order imposing an indefinite ban on all Syrian refugees, a four-month suspension of other refugee admissions and a 90-day ban on citizens of Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Libya. The order had been expected in the US, as part of Trump’s ‘week of delivery’ on his campaign pledges in his first few days in office.
Yet for Downing Street, the timing was highly damaging. As the morning papers in the UK splashed their front pages with photos of May literally hand-in-hand with the US President, people were being stopped at airports around the world.
May’s RAF Voyager jet had left Washington on Friday night for a 10-hour flight to Turkey, to fulfil a commitment to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The US trip had been confirmed late, but word was that Erdogan would have taken deep offence if May had tried to postpone the visit to Ankara. The first Western leader to meet Erdogan since the failed coup attempt last year, the PM knew that this was another diplomatic minefield.
But with Brexit just two years away, the need to build defence and trade links took priority. As with Trump, a hard-headed pragmatism was being balanced with the dangers of appearing to endorse another controversial leader.
And just as the No.10 team felt May had navigated the tightrope in Washington, so too they felt she was being sure-footed with the Turks. After arriving at a snowy Ankara airport, she headed off to lay a wreath at the tomb of Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. She signed the visitor’s book with this line: “Let us together renew our efforts to fulfil Ataturk’s vision of peace at home and peace in the world.”
Next stop was the extraordinarily grand, ‘dictator-chic’ Presidential palace, where May had lunch with Erdogan. All around them were portraits of the President, as well as photos of him being mobbed by fans and kissing old ladies. Erdogan pointed to a huge TV screen in the corner of the meeting room, which was showing highlights of her trip to Washington. How was the weather, he enquired. “Here is colder,” May replied with a tight smile.
Unlike in the US, May and Erdogan held a one-on-one meeting, with only translators present. It went on much longer than expected, before they were then joined by a phalanx of policy, military and communications aides for a working lunch. The pair of them emerged to announce new defence, trade and intelligence links. No questions were allowed from reporters.
Turkey was one of the biggest judgement calls of May’s early premiership, with the coup attempt taking place just two days after her entry to Downing Street. Listening on his translation earpiece, Erdogan looked content as she said: “I’m proud the UK stood with you on 15 july last year in defence of your democracy”.
But she then added a pointed reference to the counter-coup repression that the President had since unleashed, with tens of thousands of people detained without trial, public servants dismissed and the media gagged. “It is important that Turkey sustains democracy by maintaining rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do,” May said. Erdogan’s brow furrowed.
Yet as she crossed town to meet the country’s Prime Minister Benali Yildirim, the realpolitik continued. Deep underground in his heavily fortified, modernist compound, they took the stage in a press briefing room complete with cinema-style plush seating.
Senior British and Turkish military officers clapped enthusiastically as BAE Systems and Turkish aerospace chiefs sat down on stage to sign a £100m fighter jet deal. The Anglo-Turkish deal had been suspended since the coup, but was now confirmed and hailed by both premiers, with the promise of billions of pounds of future contracts for 250 jets.
After a 17-minute opening statement from the Turkish PM, during which several British sleep-deprived reporters literally dozed off, the press conference began. And so did the flak. May refused to answer when SkyNews’ Faisal Islam asked for her view on the US travel order. One reporter shouted ‘and the US?’, but she ignored him.
Meanwhile, standing just feet away, gripping his podium, her Turkish counterpart reacted strongly to the Trump move. “We cannot turn a blind eye to this issue and you cannot settle this issue by constructing walls,” he said. Turkey has taken three million Syrian refugees since the Arab Spring sparked the civil war, but Yildirim said: “Nobody leaves their homes for nothing. They came here to save their lives. Our doors are open. This is the most holy, sacred thing, to save a life.” It sounded as though Turkey was unafraid to criticise America, but Britain was scared of defending liberal values.
The Sunday Express’s Caroline Wheeler again pressed the PM on the issue. But when she again refused to answer, several British journalists shouted out “And what about the United States?!” Turkish reporters, themselves subject to tight restrictions, looked on slightly aghast at the spectacle of a Prime Minister effectively being heckled by her own press corps.
May finally answered: “The United States is responsible for the United States policy on refugees. The United Kingdom is responsible for the United Kingdom’s policy on refugees.” That defensive answer, with its piqued tone and refusal to condemn Trump, was guaranteed to generate headlines.
As soon as the event ended, there was a rush to the airport. The longer-than expected Erdogan talks had squeezed the timetable and the PM’s motorcade whizzed through Ankara’s traffic to make the planned departure. As the black minibuses raced on the motorway at breakneck speed, journalists hastily wrote their copy on their phones, detailing the way May’s three-day trip was ending with fresh controversy.
On board, the reassuringly efficient RAF crew welcomed the PM back into her seat and the Voyager jet took off. Yet the row unleashed by the non-answer was growing. Just before the plane left the tarmac, Labour’s Yvette Cooper - May’s former shadow at the Home Office and now chair of the Home Affairs Committee - texted HuffPost to say “this was a shocking answer from our Prime Minister…her silence is shameful”.
During the three-and-a-half hour flight, the No10 team looked forward to getting back to London, although there was unease that the entire three-day trip could be overshadowed by the US travel ban.
Yet once in the air, there was little chance of Team May finding out just how the controversy was spiralling. The PM’s plane is a specially-adapted Airbus A330 which spends most of its time as a mid-air fuel tanker for fighter jets. Its stripped-down nature, with no onboard TVs or hi-tech gadgets seen on a commercial airliner, is a far cry from the round-the-clock communications of Trump’s Air Force One. It has just one satellite phone, and no wifi or means of monitoring what’s happening online.
As the Voyager flew over France, Nadhim Zahawi fired off his first tweets. Within minutes, he had spoken to an immigration lawyer who told him he would be caught by the travel ban to the United States. “Had confirmation that the order does apply to myself and my wife as we were both born in Iraq. Even if we are not dual Nat,” he tweeted. The US Department of Homeland Security had itself suggested dual nationals would be barred. Tory backbencher Sarah Wollaston called for Trump to be denied the honour of speaking to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, during his state visit later this year.
Blissfuly unaware of the row, the PM’s team looked out of the window of the Voyager as it began its descent over the English channel. Twinkling below were the lights of the Thames Estuary, but three thousand miles away in the eye of the storm in Washington DC, Trump was holding his very first phone call with Angela Merkel.
The day after his election in November, the German Chancellor had irritated the President-Elect with a strong statement insisting that she would work closely with his White House if he upheld common values and “the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views”. By contrast, May had said she “looked forward” to working with Trump.
In her 45-minute phone call around 9pm UK time on Saturday, Merkel was again unafraid to speak truth to American power. She told him that the Geneva Convention on Refugees calls on the international community to include war refugees on humanitarian grounds - and signatory states that are “obliged to do so”.
Merkel’s words only emerged later, but as the Voyager touched down at Heathrow at 9.28pm, everyone’s mobile phones lit up with the Zahawi news. He had underlined his anger, saying “I’m a British citizen & so proud to have been welcomed to this country. Sad to hear i’ll be banned from the USA based on my country of birth”. Soon Tory MP Heidi Allen tweeted directly to the PM: “Strong leadership means not being afraid to tell someone powerful when they’re wrong”.
The PM was whisked away from the Royal Suite at Heathrow, bound for Downing Street. But as her aides huddled round in the cold waiting for taxis home, one senior figure was defiant. “There are things we’ll agree with America on, and things we’ll disagree on - we’ve always said that”.
Yet the Tory backbench condemnation grew. Normally loyal James Cleverly - close ally of Boris Johnson - said “President Trump’s immigration and Syrian refugee ban is indefensible, unworkable and almost certainly unconstitutional.” Another loyalist, David Warburton MP said: “When you do something astonishingly dumb, your closest friends need to tell you. That’s what special relationships are for.”
After two more hours of frantic phone calls, it became clear that the line had to change and change quickly. A statement was issued by No.10, emailed at six minutes past midnight. “We do not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking,” it said of the US executive order. “If there is any impact on UK nationals then clearly we will make representations to the US Government about that.” It was too late to affect the next day’s newspaper headlines but was a belated attempt to put a firebreak between May and the growing row.
On Sunday morning, Treasury Chief Secretary David Gauke was sent on to the Andrew Marr show with the new line condemning the US move as “divisive” and “counter-productive” in the fight against terrorism. He defended the PM’s reluctance to directly criticise Trump, saying she was “the kind of politician who doesn’t shoot from the hip”.
But even as Gauke spoke, in Berlin Merkel’s spokesman revealed her own warning to the US President, and issued a strongly-worded statement that put May in the shade once more. “The Chancellor is convinced that even the necessary and resolute struggle against terrorism does not justify condemning people of a certain origin or belief and put them under general suspicion,” it said.
Downing Street knew they had to do more. May held a conference call with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Insiders said she instructed them to make representations to their opposite numbers in the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to protect the rights of British nationals. At noon on Sunday, Johnson decided to fight fire with fire on Twitter: “We will protect the rights and freedoms of UK nationals home and abroad. Divisive and wrong to stigmatise because of nationality.”
But within an hour Mo Farah stepped up the pressure. The Somali-born British double Olympic champion revealed that he would be unable to see his family in their Oregon home, where he trains for much of the year. “On 1st January this year, Her Majesty The Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien.”
An online petition began, calling for the Trump State visit to the UK to be rescinded because of the embarrassment it would cause to the Queen. Tory politicians, including even Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, joined Jeremy Corbyn and others in backing the petition.
Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt told the BBC that US officials “should help the UK to try and find a reason for why this visit should not go ahead in the short term”. “When President Trump is putting the United Kingdom in an embarrassing position…I think you smack back quite hard in the first instance.” The Trump crocodile had bitten the British hand that fed it, and all May’s references to Churchill, let alone Margaret Thatcher, were looking lame.
But behind the scenes, the Foreign Office had been maximising the “special relationship” it had built up with the US State Department and White House.
Earlier this month, Johnson had travelled to the States to meet key members of the Trump transition team. The Foreign Secretary had met Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, as well as Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and Steve Miller, his quietly important speechwriter and policy aide. Now it was time to cash in a bit of the political capital built up by that meeting - and by the PM’s historic trip.
With Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still not in place, it was decided that going to the White House direct was a better option. After an exchange of texts, Johnson was phoned personally by Kushner, who confirmed the executive order could be clarified to make clear it would not affect Brits like Sir Mo or Zahawi.
Little noticed back in the UK, Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau had won a similar clarification in the early hours of Sunday. Trudeau, who has been highly critical of the Trump administration, talked to Trump national security advisor Mike Flynn and got a clarification that dual nationals would not be affected.
Trudeau had actually got his clarification about 15 hours before the Brits announced it, partly because of the time difference but also because No.10 had been failed to get to the White House after May landed in Heathrow on Saturday night. After Johnson talked to Kushner on Sunday afternoon, the FCO agreed it would not ‘spin’ the news as an ‘exemption’.
Just after 6pm, the breakthrough was conveyed to the Prime Minister. The clarification was that UK nationals travelling from one of the seven ‘majority Muslim’ countries to the US would not be affected by the ban - even if they were born in one of those countries. Dual citizens travelling to the US from outside those countries would also be unaffected. After careful drafting by the Whitehall machine, the news was released just after 8pm.
Allies of May felt that it was proof that her personal bond with the President may have been finally paying off. “To get that clarification so quickly was a good result,” one insider said. With Labour almost certain to demand a Commons statement, Johnson may now outflank them with a statement to MPs of his own on Monday.
The Prime Minister’s three-day US and Turkey trip, planned as a shop-window for a Brexit Britain ‘open for business’ and reaching out to the world, had been totally overshadowed by Trump’s disregard for global opinion - and by May’s own instinctive caution.
By Sunday night, after hours of shuttle diplomacy, she was back on the ground and felt back in control. The sustainability of her strategy for dealing with the US President, however, remains up in the air.