It should not be remarkable for a British prime minister to have friendly relations with the president of France. It is a measure of how low the bar is set that the newsworthy feature of last week’s cordial encounter between Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron was that it happened at all.
They smiled, embraced, and exchanged cooperative platitudes. Post-Brexit, such professional banality is rare enough to be reassuring.
This is not a uniquely British malaise. Macron’s election victory earlier this year was a triumph of low expectation. He comfortably beat Marine Le Pen in a second-round run-off ballot. It was a happy outcome, in the sense of a calamity having been averted. The campaign still entrenched far-right rhetoric and candidates deeper than they already were in the mainstream of French politics.
Fans of liberal democracy only dare celebrate with sighs of relief these days. There was a time, not too long ago, when US elections were not stress tests of the country’s constitutional order. It should not be touch-and-go whether authoritarian maniacs with a tenuous grasp of reality can be defeated.
That isn’t to belittle the achievement of the Democratic campaigns that blocked the anticipated “red wave” of Donald Trump tribute acts and conspiracy theorists. It is heartening to see the tide of vandalistic nationalist derangement slowed, maybe even turned. But the waters have not receded far, and they leave a foul jetsam.
Republicans who now see tactical advantage in distancing themselves do not apologise for the record of collaboration with a man whose despotic ambition was never a secret.
In this context it is worth recalling how comfortably the British right slid into sycophantic orbit around Trump, far beyond a basic duty of maintenance to transatlantic relations. Realpolitik did not force Michael Gove to pen an oleaginous defence of the newly inaugurated president in 2017, noting that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had also had their share of British detractors. Upholding normal diplomatic protocol for US leaders did not have to mean rolling out the “reddest of red carpets”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg advocated.
American democracy had a near-death experience with Trump, and the Conservative party was fellow-travelling with the assassin.
Some of the self-abasing fealty was mercantile. The Tories desperately wanted a free-trade deal with Washington as a symbolic pivot away from the European single market and a flexing of trade sovereignty. It didn’t add up as an economic exchange, but the true motive was ideological. In the febrile years between the referendum and the enactment of Brexit, coinciding almost exactly with Trump’s tenure in the White House, Britain and the US were adjacent testbeds for similar populist experiments – analogous capture of mainstream conservative parties by xenophobic nationalism, dressed as sibling insurrections against liberal elites.
The likeness was inexact in the many ways that two countries separated by an ocean are culturally dissimilar, even when their politics are in sync. One big difference is that Trump could be removed from office by operation of the normal electoral cycle. Britain is stuck with Brexit as a legal fait accompli.
Within two years of the deal being signed, its author was revealed to be a congenital liar and evicted from Downing Street. But the exposure of Boris Johnson as a serial political fraudster did not undo his biggest fraud.
The pretence that it was anything else is getting harder to sustain even for Tories who keep the Johnsonian faith. Earlier this week, George Eustice, a former environment secretary, conceded that a free-trade deal with Australia, hailed last year as a bounty of liberation from Brussels, was “a failure” that “gave away too much for far too little in return”. He did not clock that the same might be said of Brexit as a whole.
While trade realities are battering the economics of Brexit, Vladimir Putin has stripped bare its strategic folly. The war in Ukraine brings into focus a distinction between governments that recognise mutual obligations, mediated by law, and regimes that see international affairs as a zero-sum game where the rules are dictated by whoever is prepared to escalate a confrontation further.
Stalwart alliance with Kyiv is the call that Johnson got right. For once, his pompous self-regard as the incarnation of Churchillian spirit was put to good use. But those choices were made with Joe Biden in the White House. US support for Ukraine is consistent with a foreign policy of solidarity with European democracies and commitment to institutional foundations of the postwar order.
That isn’t the Trump doctrine, and Putin apologism is still rife on the radical American right. It was once the British Eurosceptic spirit, too. In 2014, Nigel Farage declared his admiration for the “brilliant” Russian president and blamed the west for provoking the Kremlin into territorial aggressions. Johnson also took that line in 2016, telling a referendum rally that a Brussels trade deal had “caused real trouble” and sown confusion in Ukraine.
The scale and bloodlust of Putin’s invasion made him enough of a pariah that many European nationalists have felt it expedient to dial down their former appreciation. Also, he is losing, which diminishes the lure of a military strongman. In 2017, Le Pen visited the Kremlin and pledged support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In this year’s presidential election she played down the link, rejecting suggestions of a “bond of friendship” with Putin and denying financial links between her party and Russian banks.
The Kremlin pumps money into political movements that may destabilise western democracies, and pollutes online discourse with misinformation to achieve the same goal. As a project whose explicit purpose was schismatic disruption of the EU, Brexit was just the sort of mission that Putin’s dirty financiers and troll armies could get behind.
No rational appraisal of the UK’s strategic global position in recent years can ignore the implications of that endorsement. But too many Tories, including the current prime minister, were enjoying the Eurosceptic dance to ponder which regimes were clapping along, or who was paying the piper.
Now we are told that Sunak is the grownup in the room. Behold the responsible prime minister! He walks and talks like a serious member of the international community, capable of having a civilised summit with the president of France. In the age of lowered expectation, the return to diplomatic sobriety is welcome if it means an end to foreign policy drunk-driving. But that doesn’t mean we have forgotten who was at the wheel when the country was steered into a ditch.