Theresa Mays audience with Trump at the White House continues an age-old dance between prime minister and president, which has seen its ups and downs
Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, rarely misses an opportunity to point out that Donald Trump regards the meeting of minds between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as a model for the presidents own relationship with Theresa May.
Continuing an age-old dance between prime minister and president, May will on Friday become the first foreign leader to visit Trump at the White House. While the president has declared his intent to put America first in all things, London scents an opening with a man whose mother was British and who restored a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office within hours of moving in.
It was Churchill, born to an American, who coined the phrase special relationship (as well as iron curtain) during a lecture tour of the US after the second world war. The affinity has been publicly reaffirmed by both sides ever since but proved notoriously lopsided as America surged to superpower status and Britain faded into the second rank. While most US presidents are instantly recognisable to the British, few prime ministers have left their mark across the pond.
There is something faintly demeaning about these prime ministerial jaunts to Washington, journalist Andrew Marr wrote in the Independent in 1994. No Briton with a residual flicker of patriotism can be entirely happy at our doglike desperation to be noticed, to receive a few kind words, have a stick thrown, be reassured by the Nice Man in the Big House that we are still more valuable than the other mutts in town.
Personalities, and personal chemistry, have been part of the narrative, at least symbolically. Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) were wartime allies against Hitler. On one occasion at the White House, a naked Churchill opened his door to Roosevelt and said, You see, Mr President, I have nothing to hide from you. Both men laughed.
Relations turned sour in the 1950s when Anthony Eden authorised military action in Egypt to regain control of the Suez canal, taking Dwight Eisenhower by surprise. Trump adviser Thomas Stewart, a former US naval officer, said: Eden kept Eisenhower in the dark. That damaged relations and affected communications between the UK and US for quite a while. Eden and the Americans were wounded by the lack of trust.