Last Thursday, I took part in the main national foreign policy hustings of this general election at Chatham House in London, which was once the residence to prime minister William Pitt and now is home to one of the world’s leading foreign affairs thinktanks. Participants in the hustings, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme, included Dominic Raab, the Conservative foreign secretary, and the shadow foreign secretaries of Labour, the Liberal Democrats (me!) and the SNP.
Raab is in somewhat of a tricky position in his constituency of Esher and Walton, which illustrates a wider phenomenon in the campaign to date. According to the latest polling, the Lib Dems are winning or second in 134 seats, many of which are currently held by the Tories. Whereas Labour is seeking to defend many of its seats in the Northern regions of England from being taken by the Tories, we are going on the offensive in the Southern regions and – with tactical voting – can unseat the Tories in a way Labour cannot.
Deltapoll carried out a seat poll in Esher and Walton which currently has the Lib Dem candidate, Monica Harding, on 41 per cent – just 5 points behind Raab on 46 per cent – with Lib Dem support up 24 per cent since 2017 and Raab’s vote down by 13 per cent. If Labour supporters vote tactically for Monica she will unseat the foreign secretary.
Monica and our activists tell me that the foreign secretary and the prime minister’s brand of right-wing, nationalist, authoritarian politics goes down like a lead balloon in the community which voted to Remain in 2016 by a clear majority (58.4 per cent to 41.6 per cent). This perhaps explains why the Tories are so sensitive to their association with the global pin-up for populist-nationalist politics, US president Donald Trump.
At the Chatham House hustings, when I said Boris Johnson was part of this network of right-wing populists, Raab notably disputed the claim, accusing me of using it as “a lazy intellectual crutch [to] rely on”. That’s because Raab must believe, as I do, that their association with this type of politics is losing him and the Conservative party votes in places like his constituency. No wonder it appears as though Johnson is seeking to distance himself from his friend, Trump, and wants to avoid appearing in photographs with him, at the Nato summit taking place in Watford this week. But, in my opinion, he cannot escape from it – it is there for all to see (we have helpfully provided a photo as a reminder of their very special relationship).
We know how much Trump admires Johnson. Even before Johnson entered No 10, Trump said back in July “we have a really good man who’s going to be the prime minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson”. He went on to shower the putative PM with what he thought would be seen as praise in the UK: “They say ‘Britain Trump’, they call him Britain Trump, and that’s a good thing. They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.” It was not what “we” wanted, it was what Tory members – making up less than 1 per cent of the population – wanted, and in many Britons’ eyes, being compared to Trump is no compliment. Clearly, no one had pointed out to Trump that he is one of the most unpopular overseas politicians in the UK – according to YouGov – whereas 72 per cent of the British public had a positive opinion of president Obama, only 21 per cent have a positive opinion of him.
And we know that however much he may seek to run away from the mutual love-in publicly this week, the prime minister privately has very high regard and admiration for the president – Johnson was recorded telling an intimate audience of Tories just that last year. He told the Conservative Way Forward group that “I am increasingly admiring of Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.” He even went as far as suggesting the president would be the ideal person to negotiate Brexit for the UK: “Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.”
This mutual admiration society between Trump and Johnson should come as no surprise. Where Trump engages in anti-immigrant sentiment towards Mexicans, Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign was doing the same to British Turkish immigrants. Where Trump bullies the US media and purges press correspondents of access to the White House, Johnson’s Tories are threatening to change the licence of Channel 4 for empty-chairing the PM for failing to show up at their climate change debate last week. As far as I’m concerned, Trump’s bigotry and offensiveness is off the chart – so is Johnson’s. They are two peas in a pod and there is nothing intellectually lazy about it. It’s a fact and the PM won’t be able to run away from this as Nato gathers this week.