LONDON (AFP) – US President Donald Trump courted candidates to replace Prime Minister Theresa May during his state visit to Britain on Tuesday, as the first leadership debates kicked off in parliament.
Trump spoke to Boris Johnson and met other frontrunners, while he also held talks with Nigel Farage whose Brexit party topped recent European polls.
May will step down as her Conservative party’s leader on Friday over her failure to take Britain out of the European Union on time, but will stay on as caretaker premier until a successor is chosen.
Eleven Conservative MPs are currently in the running after two pulled out on Tuesday, and Trump sought out the favourites during his visit in London.
He had a 20-minute phone call with Johnson, whom he has previously said would make an “excellent” premier, a source close to the former foreign secretary told AFP.
He also arranged meetings with Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, sources close to both politicians said.
The US president is a huge supporter of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and has been critical of May’s strategy – as has Johnson, who quit her government last year.
“I know Boris, I like him, I’ve liked him for a long time. I think he’d do a very good job,” Trump told a joint press conference with May.
“I know Jeremy, I think he’d do a very good job,” he said, looking at Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the audience.
“I don’t know Michael. Would he do a good job, Jeremy?”
Farage, who played a leading role in Britain’s 2016 referendum vote for Brexit, met Trump at Winfield House, the residence of the US ambassador to Britain.
“Good meeting with President Trump – he really believes in Brexit and is loving his trip to London,” Farage tweeted.
May announced her resignation last month after failing to get her plan for leaving the EU through parliament, forcing her to twice delay Brexit, now set for October 31.
Conservative MPs begin voting on a new leader next week, whittling down the candidates to a final pair. They will then be put to a ballot of party members, with a result expected end of July.
Johnson will take part in the first of a series of closed-door debates in front of MPs on Tuesday evening.
The event caused Johnson to decline a face-to-face meeting with Trump, the source said, but described the phone call between the two men as “friendly and productive”.
Ahead of his visit, Trump urged May’s successor to abandon her plans for a managed exit from the EU if they could not get an agreement they liked.
He rowed back some of his criticism of her strategy at a joint press conference Tuesday, which followed bilateral talks at Downing Street.
He confirmed he advised May to sue the EU but admitted it may not have worked.
“I would have sued and settled, maybe, but you never know,” Trump said, adding of May: “She’s probably a better negotiator than I am.”
Addressing her he said: “I think you deserve a lot of credit.”
As Conservative leader, May’s successor will automatically become prime minister without the need for a general election.
Brexit is the defining issue in the race, and both Gove and Johnson were leading “Leave” campaigners during the 2016 referendum.
Trump also met with former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, who are not running for Conservative leader but are influential Brexit supporters.
Nominations for the Conservative leadership close next Monday and candidates must have the support of at least eight MPs, under rules announced late Tuesday.
The first ballot will be on June 13, with anyone receiving 16 or fewer votes eliminated, with further ballots scheduled for June 18, 19 and 20.