Is British politics ready for Trump 2.0?
Michael Dowsett, Associate Director
With his resounding win in the Iowa caucus yesterday, it seems highly likely that – barring a significant legal or political setback – Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President. Current polling suggest that he could best Joe Biden in a re-match of the 2020 race, making him the first President to serve two, non-consecutive terms since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.
While the impact of a second Trump Presidency on US politics would be profound, what about the impact on the UK and on the decisions which have to be taken by our next government, which may well be elected just days after a Trump victory? Here are just three ways in which the political tremors from this scenario could easily spread across the pond:
Firstly, on defence and security, it is likely an emboldened Trump would begin a second term with the same hostility to America’s traditional alliances (or costly global entanglements, in his eyes) as was seen from 2017-21. With even fewer internal forces at hand to restrain him, the prospect of US retrenchment – or an ever greater shift away from Europe and towards confrontation with China in the Pacific – would leave the UK and other leading NATO members footing the bill in higher defence expenditure.
Even now, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps spoke on Monday about the UK spending 2.5% of our GDP on defence. If the first major foreign policy action of a second Trump administration is to force Ukraine into a negotiated settlement with Russia, emboldening Putin, then the urgency behind this will only be greater.
Aside from the direct security implications, the ‘crowding out’ effect that pressure for higher defence expenditure would have on other areas in a low-growth economic environment would be particularly tricky for a Starmer government to navigate, with Labour backbenchers calling for more funding for public services to be prioritised instead: ‘butter’ over guns.
Aside from the direct policy impact, the rolling commentary on events that Trump would provide in office (whether on ‘X’ or his own ‘Truth Social’ platform) could also cause continued political grief for a Starmer-led government in particular. We saw last autumn how events abroad – in that case the conflict in Gaza – could easily cause party management pressures for the Labour leader. Navigating between the pressure from a large number of activists and backbenchers to push back against the latest incendiary comment from the White House, and what a Starmer government is likely to see as the continued necessity to stay close to even an increasingly erratic US for defence and security reasons, would test the skills of even the most talented politician. And as Tony Blair showed, even the supplest of political operators can struggle to survive when the gulf between the views of the American President and those of the Labour base grows too wide.
But what about the impact of a Trump revival on the (assumed) Conservative opposition after the next general election? We’re already seeing, most recently through the Telegraph polling released yesterday, how the growing popularity of Reform UK is helping drive the behaviour of the right of the Conservative Party over the Rwanda Bill.
Notwithstanding the significant differences between the right in the US and in the UK (even pre-Trump), the confluence of Reform’s impact delivering a 1997-style Conservative defeat, and Trump ousting Biden in the same month, would both contribute to the general milieu in which the Conservatives are licking their wounds and considering their future direction in opposition – and potentially encourage a shift to the right under a new leader.
It may of course not happen at all, and 2025 may herald a new pan-Atlantic centre-left axis centred on a new Labour government and a second term Biden administration. However, with the impact of a Trump win being so significant, political leaders this side of the ocean – and those looking to engage with them – should over the coming months give more thought to how they would navigate such as scenario. The importance of this will only grow if Trump follows last night’s triumph with a win in New Hampshire next week which all but guarantees he will be the Republican standard bearer in November.