While the US president had much to say, there were two key points to the conversation – neither were particularly good news for Johnson.
– So helpful, tremendously helpful –
One, Trump claimed that the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU could preclude a trade with the US. Two, he dismissed claims that American companies wanted to privatise the NHS.
Those two comments make clear an awkward contradiction for the PM. The Brexit of the hardliners in his party, the ones who made his premiership possible this summer and could make it impossible next year, is one of deregulation, corporate tax cuts and “Singapore-on-Thames”.
The Brexit that won the referendum, and the one he has to sell to the public for his strategy of winning Labour’s Leave-voting heartlands, is quite the opposite.
– A delicate balance, crushed –
That contradiction is one of the key reasons Johnson wanted an election before his Brexit deal made it through Parliament. It’s much easier to sell “Get Brexit Done” than to find a vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future that can hold the Tories together and win a national election.
Indeed, it was his plan for the future relationship that Parliament rejected again and again, not the exit deal itself.
Yet Trump blundered right through the delicate Conservative fiction that Britain can have both versions of Brexit with his comments.
– ‘They like me over there’ –
Of course, Trump did rule out US interest in the NHS. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful.
Partly because it simply isn’t true. No, American companies won’t privatise the health service, but the US president has been explicit before that he wants the UK to abandon the drug selection system that allows the NHS to force low prices out of American pharmaceutical businesses. And if that concession isn’t made for a trade deal, another one in another sector will have to be.
But, more importantly, the polls show that the British public doesn’t like or trust Trump, whichever end of the political spectrum they are on. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Trump says about the NHS, the fact that he is talking about it at all will help Corbyn.
And Labour knows how much of an effective campaigning tool he is. That’s why they’ve settled on criticising Johnson’s deal as a “Trump-deal Brexit”. It works for Remainers while also telling traditional Labour voters that they can’t trust the Tories with Brexit.
– A long way to run yet –
None of which is to say that this will be a decisive moment. Far from it. But it shows, very early in the campaign, where the Tories’ weak spot is. And it’s a handy reminder that even with a Conservative majority, the fight in the Commons over Brexit will be far from over.