Theresa May will come under intense pressure to secure a future trade deal with the United States as she sits down with Donald Trump just hours after he warned that her soft Brexit blueprint would “kill” Britain’s chances.
In an extraordinary interview that threatened to undermine her new Brexit strategy, painfully thrashed out with her cabinet last week, Trump questioned whether her plans upheld the referendum result and accused her of ignoring his advice.
Against a backdrop of furious protests across the country, the US president openly humiliated May by suggesting that former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who quit in opposition to her Brexit plans this week, would make a great prime minister.
His intervention sabotages her attempts to placate Tory leavers, who are furious following the long-awaited release of her Brexit white paper on Thursday, by winning US support for her proposals.
On Thursday evening, as May told a dinner held in Trump’s honour at Blenheim Palace that her policy would create an “unprecedented opportunity” for a free trade agreement, his damaging statements were revealed.
She now faces the challenge on Friday of persuading him that her strategy would “tear down” the bureaucratic barriers that Brussels had put in the path of business as she attempts to overcome US fears about the future trading relationship.
Asked about Trump’s incendiary interview, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted the president “likes and respects Prime Minister May very much”.
“As he said in his interview with the Sun she ‘is a very good person’ and he ‘never said anything bad about her’. He thought she was great on Nato today and is a really terrific person,” she added.
In the interview, which ignores all usual diplomatic conventions, Trump warned that her soft Brexit approach would scupper any hopes of a free trade agreement, a cherished prize of many Brexiters.
On Thursday night, Trump and his wife, Melania, attended a black-tie dinner at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, with business leaders as well as most senior members of the cabinet.
It is understood that he will join May on Friday for a counter-terrorism demonstration by UK and US special forces at Sandhurst, before the main business element of his trip: talks with the prime minister and the new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, at the PM’s Chequers country retreat.
Downing Street said that as well as trade and Brexit, the talks would cover Russia and the Middle East.
Later on Friday Trump and his wife – who will spend some of her time on separate engagements with May’s husband, Philip – will have tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle before flying to Scotland, where they are expected to visit Trump’s golf resorts in Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire and stay at the 120-room hotel at Turnberry.
While at the Nato summit, Trump said he had been reading up closely on Brexit in recent days, and he described the UK as “a pretty hot spot with many resignations”. He had already described the UK as a country in turmoil.
He insisted he was popular in the UK, citing his strong line on migration. “They like me a lot in the UK. I think they agree with me on immigration.”
A Guardian/ICM poll released on Wednesday showed 53% of respondents disagreed with the idea Trump was doing a good job, and 63% disagreed with the statement that they would like to see a politician like him as British prime minister.