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Donald Trump has begun his first official visit to the UK with an undiplomatic barrage against his host Theresa May, saying that her Brexit blueprint “will probably kill” any bilateral trade deal.
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal,” the US president told the Sun newspaper.
He also criticised Mrs May’s handling of Brexit talks, calling it “very unfortunate” and “too long”, and said Boris Johnson, one of her rivals, “would be a great prime minister”. Mr Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary on Monday in protest at Mrs May’s Brexit plan, could yet launch a leadership challenge to her.
The comments are highly embarrassing for Mrs May, who was already facing huge political criticism for hosting Mr Trump in the UK, where he arrived on Thursday on a three-day visit.
The prospect of a speedy trade deal had been a significant factor in Mrs May’s decision to invite Mr Trump to the UK. At a dinner on Thursday night at Blenheim Palace, before the president’s incendiary comments were published, she again tried to push the matter, heralding the opportunity “to tear down the bureaucratic barriers that frustrate business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic”.
She sought to woo Mr Trump by quoting Winston Churchill, and by pointing out that 1m Americans work for British companies in the US.
Mrs May concedes that her Brexit plan, which involves continuing alignment with EU rules on goods, would restrict the scope for any trade deal. But a government white paper published on Thursday said that, after leaving the EU, Britain could still “strike new trade deals around the world, in particular breaking new ground for agreements in services”.
Mr Trump said he agreed with Mr Johnson’s desire for a hard negotiating line with the EU. “I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me . . . I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way,” he told the Sun. “The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on.”
The president had already raised eyebrows earlier on Thursday when he told a Nato press conference that Brexit was “taking a little bit of a different route”, adding: “I don’t know if that’s what they voted for.”
He had said earlier this week that the UK was in “turmoil”, following the resignation of cabinet ministers Mr Johnson and David Davis. He also suggested that he might speak to his “friend, the former foreign secretary, during his visit.
In his Sun interview, Mr Trump renewed his attacks on Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, who he said had done a “very bad job on terrorism”.
On Friday, tens of thousands of Britons are expected to march in protest at Mr Trump. A large “Human Rights Nightmare” banner has been unfurled by Amnesty International activists across the river Thames on Vauxhall Bridge in London.
A YouGov poll this week found that the president’s favourability rating in the UK is minus 60, significantly worse than both George W Bush and Barack Obama. Vince Cable, the leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said: “Most of us don’t think he is a particularly good judge on Brexit or anything else.”
The president said at Thursday’s Nato news conference, “I think they like me a lot in the UK.” He also appeared to refer to Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. “I believe that the people in the UK, Scotland, Ireland, as you know I have property in Ireland, I have property all over, I think that those people they like me a lot and they agree with me on immigration,” he said.
Mr Trump and his wife Melania arrived at Stansted airport, where he was met by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox. He came directly from the Nato summit, where he had questioned the US’s commitment to the security alliance. He is due to hold talks with Mrs May and the new UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on Friday morning.