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Why the UK is on a collision course with the US for the first time in living memory

May's foreign policy is clear but it's also full on contradictions. And that sets her against the new incumbent of the White House

Nearly six months into her premiership, and we have a crystal clear understanding of UK prime minister Theresa May’s foreign policy – and its contradictions.

Her two recent speeches - one to the Gulf Cooperation Council in Bahrain last weekend and another at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch on Monday – have left room for ambiguity.

The prime minister will give limitless support and diplomatic cover to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

The aftermath of a Saudi airstrike on a funeral hall in Sanaa (AFP)
This extends to a public defence of the Saudi coalition airstrikes on Yemen, and a point-blank refusal to acknowledge that the Saudis have breached international humanitarian law.

May showed she will allow no deviation from the position when she slapped down her foreign secretary Boris Johnson after he made uncontroversial comments last month about Saudi Arabia's involvement in proxy wars.

The prime minister will give limitless support and diplomatic cover to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States

Alliance with Saudi Arabia means being against Iran: May said so in her speech last weekend. The alliance with Saudi also explains the third leg of May's foreign policy: Britain will continue to do its best to undermine the Assad regime by military and other means.

The prime minister will countenance no criticism of Israel. This emerged in her speech at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch on Monday, during which her lavish praise on Israel was balanced by a perfunctory mention of the continued outrage at Israel’s settlement policy.

READ: Oborne on how the UK's party of war gave the green light to Saudi

Russia remains an enemy. We know this thanks to the ill-advised public speech made by Alex Younger, the MI6 chief, at MI6 headquarters last week. "The risks at stake are profound," he said, "and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty: they should be a concern to all those who share democratic values."

The UK will side with India against Pakistan over Kashmir. Britain failed to condemn the murder of 19-year-old Waseem Ahmad, who was shot by soldiers in the northwestern Sopore region while purportedly involved in a demonstration (relatives claim he was simply walking to his paddy fields), which set off the latest round of public demonstrations.

Farage is UK's only good contact with Trump

I now come to the European Union. Those who claim May has not been open about her negotiating position haven’t been paying attention. Actually her position is very clear: May's policy is to remain in the EU while formally leaving it. To adapt foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s famous phrase, she doesn’t want to have her cake, and she doesn’t want to eat it either. The prime minister wants to retain access to the single market and is prepared to make a number of compromises, including over freedom of movement, in order to do so.

Finally we come to the United States, Britain's closest ally since the US belatedly joined the Second World War after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

May wants to break with the US alliance. She has rejected an invitation by Trump, admittedly offered in a very casual way, to visit him in Trump Tower before he enters the White House.

A mural of a kiss shared by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Lithuania (AFP)
Kim Darroch, the British Ambassador in Washington, and his useless predecessor Sir Peter Westmacott, both failed to see Trump coming - an act of negligence which recalls the notorious dispatches from Sir Anthony Parsons, the British ambassador in Iran Parsons in 1979,  who assured London that the Shah of Iran was secure. (Parsons warily told London in 1979: "I do not foresee any serious trouble in the near future." His incompetence was rewarded when he was promoted to UK Representative to the United Nations only a few months afterwards.)

May has rejected an invitation by Trump, admittedly offered in a very casual way, to visit him in Trump Tower before he enters the White House

Britain has no worthwhile connections with the emerging Trump team except for Nigel Farage, an asset who the prime minister refuses to deploy. More important still, Britain now has policies which are opposed to those of the president-elect.

While Trump is determined to strike a deal with Putin, Britain continues to regard Putin as an existential threat. Trump can work with Assad in Syria: Britain regards any dealings with the Assad government as unacceptable.

READ: Oborne on how Yemen's past is being erased, one air strike at a time

On Tuesday Washington indicated that it is prepared to halt some arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the high death toll to civilians caused by Saudi bombing. Britain, meanwhile, is determined to carry on selling arms to Saudi.

For the first time in living memory, Britain has broken from the United States, its oldest ally. Such a step is bold indeed, just a few months after Brexit.

- Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saudi King Salman, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and King of Bahrain Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, December 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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