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As election nears, Boris Johnson tries to keep distance from President Trump

Christina Boyle and Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- As Britain heads into the home stretch of its election campaign, the arrival of President Donald Trump for this week's NATO summit adds a volatile new element to a bitterly divisive contest.

For years, Trump has publicly praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Conservative party is hoping to win a parliamentary majority in Dec. 12 voting. And the president is an unabashed proponent of Brexit, the planned split with the European Union that Johnson has vowed to bring to fruition.

But the last thing Johnson wants during this visit is an open show of support from Trump.

Trump is an unpopular figure in Britain, and Johnson's main opponent, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, has already made campaign hay out of fears that a post-Brexit Britain would be vulnerable to predatory trade practices by Trump's Washington.

Johnson -- no stickler for political norms himself -- sounded almost nervous during a radio interview last week in which he declared that "what we don't do traditionally, as loving allies and friends ... is get involved in each other's election campaigns."

Some commentators suggested such tactful distancing might be too little, too late, because Trump has already so warmly embraced Johnson, whose disruptive style is likened to the U.S. president's own. Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London, tweeted that Trump is a "toxic political force here."


In Britain and elsewhere, Trump has ignored longstanding diplomatic practice that constrains the U.S. from jumping into allies' domestic politics. On a visit to London in July of 2018, he humiliated then-Prime Minister Theresa May by praising her political rivals and asserting that she could have saved herself a lot of trouble by following his advice on how to negotiate Brexit.

"I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn't agree -- she didn't listen," he told a British tabloid, which published the unflattering interview, together with audio clips, hours before a joint news conference with the prime minister. Asked about it, with May at his side, Trump said he had been misquoted.

Before the election campaign began last month, Trump had long cultivated a public bonhomie with Johnson -- even hailing him as "Britain Trump." In September, as the prime minister was suffering serial defeats in Parliament of his Brexit proposals, Trump told reporters at the Oval Office: "Boris is a friend of mine ... and he knows how to win."

Johnson did eventually secure lawmakers' approval for an EU withdrawal accord that he hopes to speedily implement after the election.


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