The Cable

The United Kingdom’s Response to America’s Immigration Ban Is … Confused

Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and the Queen take on (or don't) President Trump's immigration ban.


Many governments had a quick, decisive response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens from seven countries from coming to the United States.

Some of the impacted countries — like Iran and Iraq — threatened reciprocal bans; Iraq’s parliament has already taken the first step.

Some Western countries, like France and Germany, spoke out against the ban, citing things like “international obligations” and pledging to contact Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick to lead the State Department, once his nomination is confirmed. Canada, for its part, said it would take refugees banned by the United States, a stronger statement than perhaps any press release.

And then there was the United Kingdom.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who appeared with Trump at the White House for a press conference to affirm the strength of the special relationship just hours before the executive order was signed, has not condemned the ban. Some of her fellow Tories have been quick to censure her silence (or pseudo-silence: she did say in a statement that she “does not agree” with Trump’s approach).

Meanwhile, a petition demanding the cancellation of Trump’s state visit to Buckingham Palace garnered more than a million signatures, but so far no cancellation.

Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, for his part, was made to defend the government over both Trump’s ban and his impending state visit before Parliament. It went better than some other interviews in which Johnson has participated in his time, but was still, shall we say, fraught.

Johnson said that the U.S. government had clarified for him that the ban did not apply to U.K. dual nationals (originally, the U.S. embassy in London issued a statement reiterating that it did, but Johnson has apparently received assurances to the contrary), which is to say that, according to Johnson, a U.K. citizen who also has citizenship with, for example, Libya would be able to come to the United States. 

He also noted that the Queen’s reception of such statesmen as Nicolae Ceausescu or Romania and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe went unhindered, which perhaps says more about the Queen’s next guest than what Johnson intended.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said that the United Kingdom needs a prime minister “who is prepared to tell him to stop, not one who simply proffers her hand and silently helps him along,” which was probably a reference to this:

Also, Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who lived through World War II, recalled hiding under the stairs from Adolf Hitler’s bombs, and then called Trump a fascist.

Johnson had previously tweeted, “We will protect the rights and freedoms of UK nationals home and abroad. Divisive and wrong to stigmatise because of nationality,” and, while taking questions from members of Parliament, reiterated, “this is not the policy of Her Majesty’s government.”

But that, of course, is not the point. Johnson also reminded Parliament of the “vital importance” of maintaining good working relations with the United States, and that that is more important to May’s government than, say, condemning a nationality-based ban.

And why is the special relationship so very special right now? The United Kingdom needs to maintain good relations in part because it is now uniquely dependent on the United States because of Brexit, for which Boris Johnson himself campaigned.

Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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