Britain’s Brexiters have seized on the election of Donald Trump, arguing that it offers the chance to strengthen ties with the US, in an echo of the partnership forged decades ago between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has depicted Mr Trump’s victory as “a great opportunity”, emphasised the possibility of a post-Brexit trade deal, and called for Europe to snap out of its “general doom and gloom … and collective whingearama” following this week’s election.
But many diplomats and analysts say the US president-elect’s rise to power also poses big challenges to the UK, because of Mr Trump’s apparent break with foreign policies pursued by the west until now.
In particular, the president-elect’s rhetoric on vital security issues such as Russia, Syria and Iran raises questions on the extent of future US-UK co-operation, at the same time as Brexit has strained relations with the EU.
“Our approach has always been to align ourselves closely [with the US] and use that for influence and access,” says James de Waal, senior fellow for international security at Chatham House, a prominent UK think-tank. “But I wonder if that calculus is going to continue to work.”
The difference with the Reagan-Thatcher years is striking.
The late president and prime minister, who met years before entering government, were, in Reagan’s words, “soulmates when it came to reducing government and expanding freedom”. They also generally agreed on how to handle the Kremlin.
By contrast, Theresa May, the prime minister, has criticised Mr Trump for falsely claiming that London has Muslim no-go areas. Her foreign policy differences with the incoming administration appear to be both deep and wide.
The president-elect’s future relationship with Russia is the main concern for British national security chiefs.
There is a gulf between the UK’s call for EU sanctions against Russia because of alleged war crimes in Syria, and Mr Trump’s praise of President Vladimir Putin’s supposed success in “killing Isis” in the country.
“There is no hiding the fact that on Russia we have a big problem,” says a London-based senior Foreign Office official. “You have to hope that once he starts being briefed, the intelligence will change his point of view … but fundamentally, I think his approach — certainly how he sees himself — is as a dealmaker. And that is a concern.”
Mr Trump has also suggested he could make a deal with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to fight Isis, a stance that runs against Britain’s policy that Mr Assad’s departure is necessary. Other points of potential tension include President Barack Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran, which the UK strongly backs but which Mr Trump has attacked, and his dismissal of climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
But one of Mrs May’s allies maintains that there are “opportunities” to build close relations with the future president, whose mother was Scottish-born. “The Republicans tend to be more Anglophile than the Democrats, and Trump speaks fondly of Scotland and Britain generally. They also like the idea of Brexit, so will want to be helpful.”
Liam Fox, Britain’s international trade secretary — a prominent Brexiter who has long cultivated ties with the Republican party — argues that partnership with the incoming administration is vital as the UK looks to a future outside the EU.
“There is a school led by Liam Fox that says we need to get close to Trump, especially if there is a chance of sealing a UK-US trade deal,” said a former Whitehall official. But the official adds that while “things could work well if the UK manages to be the country that reconciles Trump’s America to Europe”, the risk is of London becoming “associated with an American presidency that it cannot really influence”, damaging relations with Europe.
Others warn that the era when Britain could serve as a bridge between Europe and the US may be reaching an end — and that far from smoothing the way to Brexit, Mr Trump’s election could push the UK to improve relations with the EU.
“I think we have to start planning for what would be necessary to provide an alternative European security guarantee if US policy tends towards disinterest or even hostility,” says Chatham House’s Mr de Waal.
“Britain and France and Germany have all got used to thinking about security issues in terms of what the Americans are doing and how we relate to that. That may no longer be the case.”
Additional reporting by George Parker