LONDON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump flies into Britain on Thursday for talks with the leader of the United States’ closest ally in Europe and tea with Queen Elizabeth, against a backdrop of protests and what he described as the country’s turmoil over Brexit.
Fresh from a NATO summit where Trump chided Germany and other European nations for failing to spend enough on defense, British Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping his trip will boost the close ties between their two nations and help in forging a future free trade deal.
“There is no stronger alliance than that of our special relationship with the U.S. and there will be no alliance more important in the years ahead,” May said in a statement.
Trump’s trip coincides with a tumultuous week for May when two senior ministers resigned in protest at her plans for trade with the European Union after Britain leaves next March.
The president has already waded into the debate, saying Britain was “in somewhat turmoil” and that it was up to the people if she stayed in power.
He also said he might speak to Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary over May’s plans for a business-friendly Brexit which was agreed by her cabinet last Friday only after two years of wrangling.
Trump has long been a Brexit supporter and has expressed enthusiasm for a wide-ranging trade deal with Britain after it leaves the EU, something heralded by eurosceptics as being one of the great benefits of exiting the bloc.
“Our trade and investment relationship is unrivalled – we are the largest investors in each other’s economies,” May said. “This week we have an opportunity to deepen this unique trading relationship and begin discussions about how we will forge a strengthened, ambitious and future-proof trade partnership.”
Despite the welcome from May, many Britons remain deeply opposed to Trump’s visit. A YouGov poll on Wednesday showed 77 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the president and just 50 percent thought his visit should go ahead.
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in the Westminster parliament, regretted that the Conservative government will roll out the red carpet for Trump.
“From the public, the welcome will be far from warm,” he told lawmakers on Wednesday, noting there would be protests across the country against Trump’s “abysmal record on human rights, his repugnant attitude towards women and his disgusting treatment of minorities”.
However, Britain’s top-selling daily newspaper The Sun applauded May. “The Prime Minister has taken the right decision to treat Donald Trump with the respect his office deserves,” it said on Thursday. “We look forward to his visit.”
A high fence has been erected around the U.S. ambassador’s central London residence where Trump will spend Thursday night and the embassy has sent out an alert warning Americans in London to keep a low profile in case protests turn violent.
More than 60,000 people have signed up to demonstrate in London on Friday when protesters intend to fly a large balloon over parliament portraying Trump as an orange, snarling baby.
A campaign is also underway to get “American Idiot”, a 2004 song by the U.S. punk rock band Green Day, to the top of the UK Singles Chart.
On Thursday, Trump will travel to Blenheim Palace, the 18th-century stately home where Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill was born and spent most of his childhood.
May will host a black-tie dinner for Trump there that will be attended by senior ministers and about 100 business leaders, including from Blackstone group, Blackrock, Diageo, McLaren and Arup.
The two leaders will hold talks the following day at Chequers, the 16th-century manor house which is the prime minister’s official country residence. These will focus on relations with Russia, trade, Brexit and the Middle East.
Later, Trump will go to Windsor Castle for tea with the 92-year-old queen. When he leaves Britain on Sunday, after a trip to Scotland where he owns two golf courses, he heads to Helsinki for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
May welcomed the summit and said it could help address “malign activity” by Russia.
“I have NATO, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have Putin,” Trump said, listing his European itinerary when he departed the United States on Tuesday. “Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”
Reporting by Michael Holden; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and David Stamp