LONDON/BRUSSELS – U.S. President Donald Trump flies into “hot spot” Britain on Thursday hours after casting doubt on Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the European Union and with protests planned across the country where he says the people like him a lot.
After a NATO summit where he provoked a crisis session to force allies to up their defence spending, Trump arrives in Britain having described the closest U.S. ally in Europe as being in turmoil over Brexit.
May hopes Trump’s trip will help forge a future free trade deal, but instead Trump’s views on Brexit have cast a shadow over the visit.
The trip coincides with a tumultuous week for May after two senior ministers resigned in protest at her plans for trade with the EU after Britain leaves next March.
That business-friendly Brexit proposal was only agreed by her cabinet last Friday after two years of wrangling since Britons voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum.
“I’m going to a pretty hot spot right now, right? With a lot of resignations,” Trump told a news conference at the NATO summit in Brussels.
“The people voted to break it up, so I imagine that’s what they’ll do. But maybe they’re taking a little bit of a different route, so I don’t know if that’s what they voted for.”
Asked about Trump’s comments, May said: “We’re delivering on the vote of the British people to take back control of our money, our laws and our borders.”
Trump has long been a Brexit supporter and has expressed enthusiasm for a wide-ranging trade deal with Britain after Brexit, something heralded by eurosceptics as being one of the great benefits of exiting the bloc.
He has also said he might speak to Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary over May’s plans.
May is trying to unify her deeply divided Conservative Party behind her Brexit plans with some of her own lawmakers openly speaking of a leadership challenge.
In a statement ahead of Trump’s arrival, she said the visit would focus on trade and strengthening defence and security ties, saying there was no stronger alliance than Britain’s “special relationship with the U.S.”
“There will be no alliance more important in the years ahead,” she 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 are opposed to Trump’s visit. A YouGov poll on Wednesday showed 77 percent had an unfavourable opinion of the president and just 50 percent thought his visit should go ahead.
“I think they like me a lot in the UK,” Trump said in Brussels. “I think they agree with me on immigration. I’m very strong on immigration.”
Nick Hurd, Britain’s Policing Minister, told parliament police expected more than 100 protests across the country, including two large demonstrations in London on Friday, and there were robust and proportionate plans in place.
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in the Westminster parliament, said he regretted that May’s government would 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”.
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, 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.
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Later, Trump will go to Windsor Castle for tea with 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth. 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 which Britain blames for a nerve agent attack in March on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southwest England in March.