Risks to British security from a second Donald Trump presidency could become a major factor in the general election, and may encourage Rishi Sunak to call a vote later in the year, a former Cabinet minister has warned.
The Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer will both be pondering how they would handle a Trump White House that may reduce US commitments to Nato and Ukraine, according to former justice secretary Sir David Lidington.
However, preparing for the election here will reduce contingency planning time, he warned.
The potential threat of division among Western powers if Mr Trump is elected could be a political advantage for the incumbent prime minister, said Sir David, who also served as a Foreign Office minister handling the Nato and Europe briefs.
A Trump victory could be used by the Tories to raise concerns about any residual weaknesses among Labour MPs on defence policy, he told i, with their previous leader Jeremy Corbyn having urged the West to stop arming Ukraine.
The former Conservative MP said: “For Rishi, if it looks like Trump has a strong chance of winning, is it a good idea to have a British general election after the US election, or having the campaign here during the US election?
“Then [he] can try to frame it as, ‘Hold on to the experienced people, this is not the time in world affairs to take the risks with somebody completely unknown, plus Labour’s track record under Corbyn.’”
Sir David, now chair of defence think tank Rusi, said it was important for leaders to consider how Mr Trump’s views and actions could impact the UK, after three senior diplomatic veterans warned last week of the “massive” security risks.
Sir Peter Westmacott, a former UK ambassador to the US, said election campaigns being held simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic could influence candidates and voters here.
“There will be Trumpery all over the place,” he told i. “There’ll be all sorts of populist nonsense. Trump will be saying whatever he wants to say to get attention and get headlines, and there will be some pressure on UK candidates to react to that.”
Both party leaders will be wary of criticising Mr Trump, despite his controversial record and the way many of his policies clash with UK foreign interests, said Sir David. “There will be apprehension in both big parties at the leadership level about whether Trump 2 would mean a significant additional risk to Nato cohesion, particularly on Ukraine.
“Both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition will be turning over in their minds the question of: if I have to deal with Trump, what arguments would I deploy? But they’re not going to talk about any of this publicly.”
“Both Sunak and Starmer will, if Trump is elected, seek to establish the best working relationship with him that they can, because that is what any British Prime Minister needs to do. That is what is in the national interest.
“If you look at Labour, it’s quite interesting that I don’t think you’ve had any denunciations of Trump from Starmer or any of their top team. At the time of the insurrection, yes. But they’re going to look at things and think: we might have to deal with this guy from No 10 in about a year.”
Inside government, he is confident that “action has been taken” to plan for the dangers of Mr Trump defeating Joe Biden in November, with the UK ambassador to the US already working on the issue.
“They will have instructed Karen Pierce and her team in Washington to reach out to and try to establish decent working relationships with the Trump campaign team, and try to identify people who could be picked as the key cabinet members – the secretary of state, the Pentagon leader, the national security adviser, in particular.”
Whitehall sources say UK civil servants are preparing a secret dossier on how Mr Trump could “chuck a massive grenade into global geopolitics”.
One insider told i: “There will be lots of people planning around it in the Foreign Office, and I suspect they will be saying, ‘We screwed it up last time, we didn’t take the prospect of Trump being elected in 2016 seriously enough.’”
But with politicians on all sides readying for ballots here, leaders may not find the time they would ideally like to dedicate to the Trump question, Sir David said.
“They won’t be able to carve out hours, let alone days, for strategic thinking about this, because it’s an election year. They’ve both got lots of other stuff going on… I know what those days are like.”
However, he thinks domestic factors will outweigh concerns about US politics when it comes to scheduling the UK general election.
“When is the Bank of England meeting to discuss interest rates, is that going to be the middle of the campaign? When is a particular set of statistics coming out and do we think those will help us or harm us?” he said.
“When it comes to the tactical decision about the precise week you set the election date, those are going to be the upper-most considerations. The US election will be part of that, but only one part of it.”
There have been calls for the UK and its European partners to increase arms production in case a Trump administration cuts American military dedication to defending the continent in the event of further Russian incursions.
British munition stocks are low after using them to supply Ukraine, which is nevertheless now having to ration ammunition while fighting Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
But weapons manufacturers such as BAE Systems will find it hard to greatly expand their output without long-term pledges from Westminster, warned Sir David.
“The failure so far of Europe collectively to commit itself to a strategic increase in its defence industrial capabilities is a big problem.
“When you talk to defence industry chiefs, they say, ‘We will happily build the new factories, and we’ll invest in the machine tools, and set up the production line – but we need a guarantee that there will be business for 15 to 20 years.’
“They can’t do it on the basis of government saying, ‘We want this for the next two years to fund Ukraine, and then we’ll think about it afterwards.’”
He called on European allies to plan together and share the burdens: “It is not going to be possible for each of the major European powers to fund an increase in every area of defence manufacturing, and technology. There’s got to be some coordinated approach to doing this.”