BLENHEIM PALACE, England (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May made a determined pitch to Donald Trump for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States on his first trip to Britain on Thursday, but the U.S. president almost immediately cast doubts on her hopes.
Invoking the spirit of Winston Churchill as she addressed Trump and business leaders at the British World War Two leader’s birthplace, May praised the friendship between the two close allies, glossing over remarks from the president that he was entering a “hot spot”, with Britain in turmoil over Brexit.
But in extracts of an interview with the Sun newspaper released late on Thursday, Trump said a trade deal would be almost impossible if Britain remained as close to the European Union after Brexit as May appeared to be planning.
“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 Sun newspaper quoted Trump as saying.
Trump’s visit comes at the end of a tumultuous week for May after two senior ministers resigned in protest at her plans for trade with the EU after Britain leaves the bloc next March.
May’s “business-friendly” Brexit plan – which would keep Britain in a free trade zone for goods with the EU but mean it has to share some EU rules – was agreed by her cabinet only last Friday after two years of wrangling since Britons voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum.
A trade deal with the United States is one of the main aims of Brexit supporters within May’s Conservative Party, who are concerned that she is making too many concessions to the EU.
Some Brexit supporters cast May’s Brexit plan as a betrayal, including lawmakers in her own deeply-divided party who have warned of a leadership challenge.
“I’m going to a pretty hot spot right now, right? With a lot of resignations,” Trump told a news conference before leaving for London.
Outside Blenheim Palace, near Oxford to the northwest of London, a couple of thousand demonstrators lined the road and booed before Trump’s arrival, one of over 100 protests police expect to take place during his four-day trip.
Within the walls of the grand 18th-century country house, May had only warm words, calling Britain and the United States “not just the closest of allies but the dearest of friends”.
“Mr President, Sir Winston Churchill once said that ‘to have the United States at our side was, to me, the greatest joy’,” May told Trump at a black-tie dinner in his honour, according to a text of her speech provided by her office.
“The spirit of friendship and co-operation between our countries, our leaders and our people, that most special of relationships, has a long and proud history. Now, for the benefit of all our people, let us work together to build a more prosperous future,” she said.
The dinner was attended by senior ministers and about 100 executives from firms including Blackstone group, Blackrock, Diageo and McLaren.
On Friday, Trump is due to meet Queen Elizabeth, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, for 25 minutes over tea, as well as view a military demonstration and have a working lunch with May.
The meeting could be difficult, after Trump was quoted in the Sun as saying that May had rejected his advice on Brexit.
“I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me,” he was quoted as saying.
Trump, who has repeatedly praised Brexit, has expressed enthusiasm for a wide-ranging agreement with Britain after its EU departure. Supporters of Brexit say such a trade deal would be one of the great benefits of exiting the bloc.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Alistair Smout, David Milliken, Jo Heywood and Isabel Woodford; Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Janet Lawrence, David Stamp and Nick Tattersall