When it comes to dealing with foreign leaders of whom she might not approve, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth always behaves impeccably. When it comes to giving a harsh message, however, she has been known to deliver a hefty punch.
According to former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sherard Cowper-Coles, the monarch once invited a senior member of the Saudi role family to sit in the front seat of one of the Royal Land Rovers for a tour of her Balmoral estate. The queen herself then jumped into the driving seat and proceeded to race the vehicle around the Scottish landscape, much to the alarm of the crown prince. Women in Saudi Arabia, of course, are not allowed to drive and the queen --trained as an Army mechanic during World War Two – seemed to be expressing her own view on that restriction.
Such stories are rarely shared in public – it is a convention that British people do not share public conversations with the sovereign, no matter what the subject. What is clear, however, is that she does have her own ideas on propriety and style.
Now the world’s longest ruling monarch faces what could be one of the most awkward state visits of all time – that of Donald Trump. Many Britons even say they want the U.S. president’s invitation to visit the UK withdrawn, particularly since his executive order restricting travel on those with ties to seven Muslim countries.
A petition to that effect has already gathered more than 1.5 million signatures, enough to warrant a non-binding parliamentary debate on the subject. A similar anti-Trump petition prompted a similar debate last year, but there is little prospect it will genuinely sway the government.
In the aftermath of Brexit, as Britain stumbles toward-its departure from the European Union on still undefined terms, London needs Washington more than ever. Specifically, it needs the new president of the United States to be as happy as possible. And that, it seems, means he needs to be made to feel welcome by the queen.
What, precisely, does that involve? Members of the royal family, including the monarch, have frequently met with a range of often disreputable – or at least dubiously democratically accountable – leaders, often in pursuit of national commercial, diplomatic and geopolitical interests. It is, many would argue, an intrinsic part of the job.
The UK has long been obsessed with its “special relationship” with Washington, justifying at least in part a range of actions – including military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – by the need to maintain those connections. The prospect, indeed, the near necessity, of winning some early trade deals and using U.S. diplomatic muscle to persuade other countries to follow suit is appealing for a worried post-Brexit government. Being too forward to such a controversial U.S. leader, however, could yet backfire – at least for Prime Minister Theresa May, if not for the royal family.
Foreign leaders, particularly U.S. presidents, are invariably keen for time with both the queen and other senior royals. On his final visit to the UK in the middle of last year, President Barack Obama attended Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebrations and also made a point of meeting her great-grandson George, son of Prince William, and himself a future king.
Trump’s enthusiasm, if anything, appears even greater - an apparent legacy of his Scottish-born mother, who, he says was invariably glued to the screen for any coverage of the royals.
His expectations for the visit, however, may prove more difficult to stomach.
For one thing, according to the Sunday Times he has specifically stipulated that he does not wish to meet Prince Charles, apparently largely due to the latter’s well-publicized concerns over environmental matters and climate change.
It is unusual for foreign leaders to be invited for a full state visit – one in which they are received with much greater pomp and circumstance, and essentially hosted by the monarch rather than the government of the day – so early in their presidency.
Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were on their third presidential trips to the UK before they received the honors of a state visit. Ronald Reagan was the most recent to receive the full treatment on his first trip, but that was almost 18 months into his term of office. Trump, however, looks set to get it all with what may seem truly indecent haste.
We don’t know yet exactly when the top visit will take place – May said the invitation was passed on by her when she visited Trump in Washington last week (such invitations technically come from Buckingham Palace rather than Downing Street, providing a perhaps useful degree of plausible deniability to distance May herself from the visit should it prove irredeemably politically toxic.)
According to the Guardian, however, much of the drive behind doing a state visit so quickly came from Downing Street, in part because of its unusual degree of desperation to secure a good working relationship with the new U.S. president. Some of that, inevitably, is the need for some kind of trade deal – something Trump has pledged to make happen.
The Guardian reported that Downing Street was also disquieted by just how fast some of the more colorful Brexit-favoring figures in British politics secured their own meetings with Trump. The U.S. president met former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage in New York within days of his election; former minister and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove secured his own interview shortly before the inauguration. Neither figure is believed particularly popular with May, who clearly wanted to secure her own relationship as fast as possible.
With a president as controversial as Trump that’s always going to be a mixed political calculation. Even the predominantly right-wing Daily Mail newspaper has found some of Trump’s more sexist comments beyond the pale - or at least, appears to have believed its predominantly female readership will have done. Before May made her trip to Washington, the newspaper demanded she call him to account on any derisive comments about women. (May told the BBC she felt they were unacceptable, although there is no evidence she actually raised it when visiting the White House.)
Overall, the media response to the prime minister’s meeting with Trump was perhaps as good as she might have expected. Their encounter appeared cordial, and given the amount of focus Britain puts on its “special relationship” that mostly played well. Images of the two leaders clutching hands appear to some a little overly intimate, but were explained away in part by the president’s reported fear of slopes, stairs and gradients. He was, apparently, in need of reassurance.
Perhaps more of a worry to British officials is what such an idiosyncratic president might expect from his interaction with the Queen. According to one British tabloid, British officials believe Trump’s priority was to feel that his visit was “better” than that enjoyed by Obama. Trump’s greatest wish, they suggest, may well be to be allowed to play golf on the royal estate at Balmoral while her Majesty watches.
He shouldn’t get too comfortable, though. Britain might need a trade deal, but its 90-year-old monarch may yet have a couple of her own tricks up her sleeve.
For more Reuters Commentary coverage of Trump’s first 100 days, click here.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.