LONDON — It looked for all the world like a boardroom scene from “The Apprentice,” with President Trump appraising the candidates to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May, even as she stood by his side at a news conference on Tuesday.
Boris Johnson? “I’ve liked him for a long time.”
Jeremy Hunt? “I know Jeremy, I think he’d do a very good job.”
Michael Gove? The president, at a loss, playfully turned to Mr. Hunt in the front row: “Would he do a good job, Jeremy? Tell me.”
And then, as if slipping off-camera to interview the contenders, Mr. Trump sought a series of meetings with some of those same lawmakers, holding out his endorsement for whoever would remake the Conservative Party in his blustering, bare-knuckled image.
But some top contenders have nevertheless rushed this week to woo the president and embrace his brand of bellicose politics, swatting aside the inflatable Trump baby balloon and the thousands of angry placards that greeted his state visit. They cheered his insults of London’s mayor, snatched precious one-on-one meeting time and battled to claim the mantle of Mr. Trump’s pugilistic stance in trade negotiations.
That spectacle, playing out as Britain remains locked in a stalemate over Brexit, has underscored how insular a courtship ritual the race to succeed Mrs. May has become. Playing to tiny audiences of fellow Conservatives who will choose the party’s next leader — and the eventual prime minister — some leading candidates have seemed to relish casting themselves in the image of an American president whose approval ratings are dismal across Britain as a whole.
The era of Mrs. May styling herself as Mr. Trump’s opposite while pulling from his playbook is over. With the specter of Nigel Farage and his upstart Brexit Party looming as an existential threat, big sections of the Conservative Party seem to believe that the best way to turn the page on her disastrous tenure is by choosing a leader who is unafraid to emulate the leader across the Atlantic.
“It really smacks, I think, of how desperate these candidates are, and what desperate straits the party is in, that they’re prepared to indulge Trump in the kind of things he’s saying and doing,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “A lot of the constraints have come off British politics. Whether they’ve come off permanently, or whether it’s because the Conservative Party is at panic stations, is something only time can tell.”
The Conservative Party’s fondness for Republican politics goes back generations, and affections have grown in recent years as Brexiteers have held up a prospective American trade deal as the reward for a sharp split from the European Union.
But some analysts were struck this week by just how obsequious some of the leadership contenders’ appeals to Mr. Trump had become. Enthusiasm for the president, once confined to the party’s rightmost wing, seemed to travel to the mainstream as lawmakers vied for the votes of some 160,000 party members who tend to be stridently anti-Europe.
Mr. Gove, the environment secretary and a leadership hopeful from the moderate wing, once called Mr. Trump “an intemperate, bullying, foul-mouthed panderer.” But Mr. Trump asked to meet with him anyway, a request that was still being arranged on Wednesday, British news outlets reported.
Mr. Hunt, the foreign secretary, sat down with Mr. Trump on Tuesday night, a few hours after Mr. Trump singled him out as a potential prime minister. Mr. Hunt has repaid the president’s affection, defending him after Mr. Trump greeted his hosts by calling London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, a “stone-cold loser” and making fun of his short stature on Twitter.
“Well,” Mr. Hunt said, “the elected mayor of London has made some pretty choice insults about Donald Trump.”
Esther McVey, a hard-line Brexiteer running to succeed Mrs. May, took the same tack, blaming Mr. Khan for criticizing the president and calling him “churlish, childish.” Ms. McVey also adopted Mr. Trump’s stance on a no-deal Brexit, saying in a statement: “The U.S. president is right about the need for us to be serious about walking away from the E.U. without a deal.”
Mr. Johnson, whom Mr. Trump has said for months would make a good prime minister, has rocketed to the front of the race by pitching himself as the sort of charismatic populist who could hold together a new Tory electorate. He spoke to Mr. Trump by phone for 20 minutes, rather than risk further alienating the majority of Britons who loathe the president with a face-to-face meeting.
If he and other contenders were cautious about flaunting their access to the American president, it was possibly because two-thirds of Britons dislike Mr. Trump, according to polling by YouGov, while around a fifth have a positive opinion of him.
Mr. Trump has offered a “phenomenal” trade deal if Britain makes a hard break from the European Union, but analysts say such an outcome is illusory. Such a split would require a physical border between Ireland, a member of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and possibly renew sectarian tensions that were largely settled with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Congress is highly likely to block any deal that threatens that peace accord.
Max Hastings, a historian of the British-American relationship, said while British leaders had been kowtowing in vain to American presidents for generations, the current batch of Tory leadership hopefuls was doing so with unusual verve.
“In my eyes, there’s a fantastic naïveté among the Tory leadership, which in some degrees is historic,” he said. “They have a quite extraordinary belief that if they suck up sufficiently to Trump, this administration will do them favors.”
Mr. Hastings said he had warned Mrs. May about the two countries’ chronically asymmetrical alliance before she took office. Mrs. May sought Mr. Trump’s favor anyway, only for him to repeatedly undercut her attempts to negotiate a Brexit deal. Now, far from learning the lessons of recent years, Tory contenders are courting Mr. Trump even more aggressively.
“The current crop have got this disease worse,” Mr. Hastings said. “What we’re seeing here is something very unusual indeed.”
Some of them also took Mr. Trump’s side of a debate with Mrs. May over whether to allow Huawei, the Chinese technology company, to build part of Britain’s new telecommunications system. Mrs. May has reportedly expressed openness to doing business with Huawei, though the Trump administration has pushed allies to bar the company, saying it poses security risks.
Some analysts fear that if the next prime minister mimics Mr. Trump’s aggressive approach to trade, Britain, having already isolated itself from the European Union, will also set itself on a collision course with China.
Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, said some Tories were privately pining for exactly that sort of figure: a leader who could be as brash and combative in trade negotiations with the European Union as Mr. Trump had been with Mexico or China.
The Conservatives are ever mindful of the challenge posed by Mr. Farage, perhaps Mr. Trump’s closest friend in British politics, whose upstart pro-Brexit party resoundingly defeated the Tories in European Parliament elections last month. And in Mr. Trump, members of the Conservative Party have found someone unafraid to talk tough about breaking Britain’s obligations to the European Union and setting off on their own.
“In effect, Trump and the zeitgeist of the Conservative Party have met, they’ve collided,” Mr. Goodwin said. “Here’s a U.S. president saying something that’s now pretty close to where the mood music within the Conservative Party is headed.”
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