Think a Trump-style political revolution could never happen in the UK? We always copy America

If we play fantasy politics for a moment and imagine Prime Minister Corbyn, it is easy to see him mirroring Trump and tweeting from Number 10 about ‘fake news’

Click to follow

“The time for trivial fights is over” was the most striking sentence in Donald Trump’s surprisingly statesmanlike speech to both houses of Congress. His call for Americans to come together was in sharp contrast to his divisive, rabble-rousing inauguration address in January, which was like his greatest hits on the campaign trail.

The world will now watch the President’s Twitter account to see whether he stops picking “trivial fights”. If he really moves to the mainstream and realises that his aggressive, tribal approach is not working, that will be a huge relief. Yet I doubt it will last, or that there will now be an outbreak of mutual affection between Trump and the “liberal media” he accuses of peddling “fake news” when it tells the truth about his administration, or asks highly-relevant questions about its relations with Russia.

Trump’s dilemma – how mainstream should insurgents become? – now confronts Ukip as it wages civil war via Twitter. Nigel Farage told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday: “There have been some in Ukip who want to turn us into a mainstream political party with very bland messages and I would say Ukip is a radical party or it is nothing.” He wants a Trump-like approach to immigration to be Ukip’s new cause after Brexit, putting him at odds with Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP.

Donald Trump takes credit for companies' investments that began before he became President

Thankfully Ukip remains a million miles from power; perhaps there is some merit to our outdated first-past-the-post electoral system after all. Yet those politicians who believe a Trump-like figure could “never happen here” cannot be complacent, even after Ukip’s humiliating defeat in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Ukip won the 2014 European Parliament elections, fought under the fairer proportional representation system, and almost 4 million people voted for it at the 2015 general election.

The vote for Brexit showed that anything can happen here as well as across the Atlantic. We would be unwise to assume that it could never happen at a general election just because voters had left off steam in a referendum.

In the short term, it’s unlikely. What Ukip needs more than anything is for Theresa May to fail to deliver Brexit – but it will be disappointed. May knows that if we have not left the EU by a 2020 general election, she might face just the sort of uprising we saw in last year’s referendum. The next best scenario for Ukip would be for May to negotiate a soft Brexit which does little to reduce immigration. Possible, but unlikely; the Prime Minister prioritises immigration over close trading links.

Although the US and UK political systems are different, those who believe Trump couldn’t happen here should remember that we often follow America. Our politics has become more presidential; we now have a huge lobbying industry and a Supreme Court. New Labour copied the campaign and media techniques of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats. The new political class of young advisers, many of them now MPs, worshipped The West Wing. David Cameron followed the New Labour playbook. The result was a long period of government-by-headline which May has now brought to an end. 

After the Tories’ sensational victory in Copeland, May has every chance of colonising the centre ground. With Ukip marginalised, the best chance of seeing a Trump-like populist emerge anytime soon in Britain is on the left.

Arguably we already have one in Jeremy Corbyn who, like Trump, persuaded a mainstream party to elect him against all the odds and won a personality cult. Corbyn advisers hoped he would become an anti-establishment hero. Their hatred of New Labour made them hostile to communicating through the mainstream media which, ludicrously, they blame for Labour’s dire performance. If we play fantasy politics for a moment and imagine Prime Minister Corbyn, it is easy to see him mirroring Trump and tweeting from Number 10 about “fake news.”

Back in the real world, Labour belatedly promises new policies and a coherent message. It could be Corbyn’s last chance to persuade his party to stick with him until the general election, but might already be too late.

If we are to see a left-wing version of Trump in office  in Britain, it won’t be Corbyn. Labour centrists dream that a new hero will sweep to power in the party and country like Emmanuel Macron, who emerged from nowhere to become a serious contender in the French Presidential election. Some do not rule out an SDP-style breakaway after the next election, even though the “Gang of Four” who left Labour in 1981 failed – just – to break the political mould.

There’s only one problem: there is no credible leader in sight. “We haven’t even got a Gang of One,” admitted one gloomy Labour MP.