Trump in Britain: A Blimp in the special relationship

Even those supportive of the President’s visit are beginning to regret some of his behaviour

Trump blimp protest in London, July 13, 2018. Photo by Gareth Browne
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On a blazing summer’s day, the parched grass of Westminster’s Parliament Square is crammed with the usual tourists. Yet, with Big Ben cloaked in scaffolding while under refurbishment, it was another towering edifice that drew the focus of the backpackers from Amsterdam, and tour groups from China.

A blimp, depicting a voluptuous, nappy-clad US President Donald Trump, complete with the trademark snarl and a coiffed fringe, bobbed above the square for several hours. It flew above the statues of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.

Mr Trump’s visit to the UK, downgraded from the full state visit suggested by the Queen some 18 months ago has been met with a swell of opposition on a level not seen during the visit of a US president to Britain.

Mr Trump’s blimp was just a small part of a bigger day of protest. The capital was braced for more than 100,000 protestors, and the four-day trip is expected to cost the British taxpayer £10 million in policing and security costs. Mr Trump’s itinerary largely avoided central London in an effort to evade demonstrations. Even the bullish president admitted to feeling “unwelcome” in the capital. “I was headhunted for this role – I’ve got a lot of experience with really ratty children,” says one of the "Trump Babysitters” – the group volunteers manning the blimp’s tether lines.


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It was a sentiment that characterised the dry humour that dominated much of the demonstrations – Britain’s response to Mr Trump would be both humorous and deadly serious, as Nathalie Charles who travelled from Birmingham told The National, “we’re just fed up with him, so we will fight it with humour, as we do best”.

Organisers crowdfunded the £30,000 cost of the blimp, and what some had written off as a social-media stunt, became a reality last week when London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has his own acrimonious personal history of disagreements with the president, granted it permission to fly.

Some criticised the blimp protest, it showed one of the UK’s most important allies a lack of respect, they said. A small, but vocal group of pro-Trump demonstrators lingered in the blimp’s shadow, occasionally breaking into chants of “Free Tommy Robinson” – a reference to the poster boy of Britain’s far-right who was recently jailed for contempt of court. “They’re not sincere in their project, they come here with their blue hair, on the tax payer’s time,” cried one man who denounced the anti-Trump march.

Yet even among those who had initially supported the visit, in the interests of fostering prospects of a post-Brexit trade deal, there is a creeping sense of regret. The eve of the trip saw Mr Trump level some embarrassing criticism at Theresa May, particularly her Brexit negotiations. He also tipped her bitter rival Boris Johnson, and former Foreign Secretary as a future Prime Minister.

The President told The Sun that he thought the Prime Minister had “wrecked Brexit”, adding that in its current form, Brexit would “probably kill” a special trade deal with the US.

Though Mr Trump would later row back at a joint press conference with Mrs May – he claimed “I didn't criticise her" and labelled the story "fake news" - the damage was done.

Former senior British diplomat Simon Fraser tweeted “I was on balance (but unenthusiastically) in favour of Trump visit. But his patronising put-down of Theresa May is wholly outrageous, whatever your view of her, her government or her handling of Brexit”.

Trump blimp protest in London, July 13, 2018. Photo by Gareth Browne
Trump blimp protest in London, July 13, 2018. Gareth Browne / The National

One of Mrs May’s own ministers, Sam Gyiamah quickly broke ranks with the government to level criticism, tweeting “Where are your manners, Mr President?”

Mrs May was not immune from criticism herself, with many expressing disappointment, and even pity at her lack of foresight. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said: “Usually, I don't feel sorry for Theresa May but I do this morning… she should have realized what she had coming for her.”

“You don’t, when you go to someone’s house, insult the host,” she added.

"Coming into the country and being very negative when they are your host, I think it's in bad taste," said one protestor.

Trump blimp protest in London, July 13, 2018. Photo by Gareth Browne
Trump blimp protest in London, July 13, 2018. Gareth Browne / The National

Artist Kay Mar, a British citizen after moving from Spain 42 years ago, roamed the square holding aloft a canvas with his latest effort, the product of two days’ work: an ape with Trump’s head towering above Parliament like King Kong - a swastika on its foot. “He wrecks everything, and he gives ammo to the ultra-right wing. He’s dangerous for the world, not just the US.”

As for his plans for the painting when Mr Trump’s visit is over – “I’ll put it in my shed, and leave it to rot,” he said.