LONDON—The frontrunner to become Britain’s next prime minister has turned down the chance of a one-to-one meeting with President Donald Trump, in an extraordinary snub to the White House.
Boris Johnson is the favorite to win the Conservative leadership race, which begins next week, and take the keys to No. 10, where Trump met the current prime minister on Tuesday.
The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, also refused to attend the state banquet with Trump and took the unprecedented step of announcing that on Tuesday he would address the crowd of protesters who argue that the president should never have been invited to Britain in the first place.
The double snub, by the two men who are expected to be leading Britain’s main political parties by the end of the year, came after Prince William and Prince Harry avoided any chance of a photo op with the Trumps at Buckingham Palace.
While many of Britain’s elite have chosen to avoid Trump, thousands took to the streets to boo him and march against his visit. Speaking at a joint press conference with Theresa May at the Foreign Office, Trump claimed that he had not encountered any protests Monday. “I said, ‘Where are the protests? I don’t see any protests.’ I did see a small protest today... very small so a lot of it is fake news.”
As The Daily Beast reported, Trump did not see many protesters outside Buckingham Palace on day one of the trip because police shunted demonstrators away from the entrance to the palace where Trump drove in and where the banks of cameras were beaming happy photos to the rest of the world. The anti-Trump voices were hidden behind the walls of a monument.
With May formally resigning as Conservative Party leader on Friday, there is a surreal air to a state visit where Trump has not really had the opportunity to address any substantive issues. During a breakfast meeting with May and a group of business leaders, he appeared to suggest she should stay on a little longer in the job in order to negotiate a U.K.-U.S. trade deal.
“I don’t know exactly what your timing is but, stick around, let’s do this deal,” he said.
Since trade negotiations tend to last for years and May’s premiership is limping through its final weeks, this suggestion elicited laughter in the room.
In another break with protocol and tradition, there was no one-to-one meeting between Trump and May. They did hold talks in Downing Street accompanied by their staffs before a joint press conference.
Trump’s team did try to sort out a private meeting with Johnson, however. The U.S. president attracted criticism for interfering in British domestic politics by backing him in the race to succeed May before he landed in the country. “I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent,” he told The Sun newspaper ahead of the trip.
Trump seems to like Johnson—perhaps seeing him as a kindred spirit—even though the pol was extremely rude about him when he served as London’s mayor. Johnson said Trump was “clearly out of his mind” and “unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.”
Johnson has not disavowed his words and did not respond to Trump’s kind words last week. Despite his hesitancy to embrace Trump, one of Johnson’s aides told ITV’s Robert Peston that he was invited for a meeting. He told the president that he was too busy with a campaign event for his run for the top job. Instead, the men had a 20-minute conversation on the phone.
Trump continued to back Johnson after they had spoken, saying at the press conference: “I know Boris, I’ve liked him for a very long time, I think he’d do a good job.”
He also confirmed that he would meet another Conservative leadership candidate, Michael Gove, a former journalist who secured the first British interview with Trump as president for The Times of London, thanks to the newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch, who sat in on the interview, according to reports.
Journalists camped outside the U.S. ambassador's residence on Tuesday afternoon spotted Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage going into the compound as well.
Trump said he had refused a request from the Labour leader Corbyn for a private meeting because he is “a negative force.”
“I really don’t like critics as much as I like and respect people that get things done so I’ve decided not to meet,” he said.
Corbyn refused to take part in the celebration of the state banquet at Buckingham Palace and sent no one from the Labour party to attend in his place. Instead, he addressed thousands of protesters in the street as Trump was meeting with May.
“I am very disappointed, particularly today on the wonderful festival of Eid, that our mayor of London Sadiq Khan has been attacked in the way that he has. I am proud that our city has a Muslim mayor, that we can chase down Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, any form of racism within our society because racism divides,” Corbyn said.
Khan also hit back at Trump after years of sniping between the two men. He called the president a “poster boy for the far-right” and compared his Twitter antics to a child. “First I thought it was a joke, the sort of thing an 11-year-old would do,” he told the BBC.