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Home Speeches President Trump: State Visit - Westminster Hall - 20th February 2017

President Trump: State Visit - Westminster Hall - 20th February 2017

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5.25 pm

Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con)

I guess I should start by declaring an interest: not simply do I have a deep antipathy towards President Trump, but I was prepared to more than just talk about it and I spent a considerable amount of time last year working for Hillary Clinton on her presidential campaign in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and South Carolina. I believed, as President Obama did during the 2016 campaign, that she was the most qualified candidate to run for President in the 20th century. As every day goes by—not least the past seven days—I am deeply grieved to see the opportunity that America sadly passed up for the person it chose, but we are where we are. Hillary Clinton got 2.8 million more votes, but the Americans elect their President not through who gets the most votes but through the electoral college. Those are the rules, and there is no point crying over spilled milk.

I will not rehearse all the reasons why any reasonable person should have significant doubts about Donald Trump, because they are sadly too well known. America has been our greatest ally for a considerable time: it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our hour of need, as we did in its hour of need, particularly during 9/11, so it is to my mind foolish to allow our personal views and assessments of the more grotesque characteristics or behaviour of an individual to blur what is in Britain’s national interest. I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to continue the special relationship, as we did under most Prime Ministers since the second world war, with the possible exception of Sir Edward Heath.

Mr Lammy

I know the right hon. Gentleman’s deep affection for the United States—indeed, I have been with him at Democratic conventions in the past—but is the natural conclusion of his argument that the more offensive the American President and the more concerned we are as a nation about the person who has been elected, the quicker we should rush to give them a state visit? Is this debate really about the nature of how Donald Trump should come to this country?

Sir Simon Burns

If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will get on to the timing. He makes a valid point.

Regardless of what we think of Donald Trump as a man, I believe it is in our national interest to ensure we continue to be a candid friend to the United States. We should be respected by the United States and have the ability to talk to it candidly and explain when we believe it is getting it wrong or could be doing it better. We should ensure that it moderates its views to something more in keeping with what we believe is dignified and the correct way to behave. We cannot do that if we totally ignore the United States, write off the presidency and say, “The man is dreadful, so we shall have nothing to do with him.” We would become isolated and less influential, and that would not be in our national interest.‚Äč

A number of hon. Members during the debate and outside the Chamber have questioned the timing. Frankly, it does not matter when one issues an invitation if one is trying to protect and develop our national interest. If we do it seven days into a presidency, we will be criticised; if we do it in 2020, we will be criticised for playing around with the American electoral system and helping the man in his presumed re-election bid.

Alex Salmond

In delaying the invitation for a state visit, we would at least have the advantage of knowing the President will still be there.

Sir Simon Burns

The right hon. Gentleman may be better at looking into a crystal ball than I am. None of us, frankly, can predict what will happen next week, let alone next year, the year after or the year after that. He might be right, but I agree with him that the beginning has not been auspicious in any shape or form. It is a bit like the Bible—one always admires a sinner who repents—and we will have to see whether the people around President Trump are able to moderate and guide him, although I am not convinced that they will be as successful as others might be.

That, however, is not the point. The point is that, whenever the invitation is extended, or whenever a visit takes place, there will be criticism by those who wish to criticise. We have to rise above that. We have to look at what will be helpful for Britain and its future policy and development. It is a no-brainer that working closely with the United States is far more important for this country, in particular as we begin negotiations and the exit from the European Union in two or two and a half years’ time. We cannot afford to be isolated or to ignore our friends to stand alone, thinking that we will thereby ensure that everything works out all right, because more often than not it will not.

Loyalty has always been a key mark of this country, whether under a Conservative or a Labour Prime Minister. Some would argue that in the past at times we have been too loyal. I will not intrude on the grief with regard to 2001 to about 2006, but that was a difficult time and perhaps we got it wrong in how we talked as a candid friend to the previous-but-one President. We all learn from our mistakes, however, and I believe that we have the opportunity, by giving respect to the institution of the presidency of the United States from the start, to continue to work with the United States. That will pay benefits to this country and to America, and it is the right thing to do. The state visit should go ahead, although I have to say—this may come as a surprise to some—I agree with Mr Speaker that there should not be an address in Westminster Hall to a joint session of Parliament.