LONDON • The British government has defended its decision to offer US President Donald Trump a lavish state visit and an audience with Queen Elizabeth this year, defying protests outside Parliament and dissent from lawmakers.
Prime Minister Theresa May's government maintains that it wants to reaffirm the "special relationship" with the United States and secure a trade deal as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.
"In the light of America's absolutely pivotal role, we believe it entirely right that we should use all the tools at our disposal to build common ground with President Trump," Junior Foreign Minister Alan Duncan told Parliament on Monday.
He described state visits as Britain's "most important diplomatic tool", saying Mr Trump's trip would go ahead as planned.
The visit has spurred 1.8 million people in Britain to sign a petition saying a state visit could embarrass Queen Elizabeth. Parliament's debate of that petition on Monday was a symbolic discussion which has no power to force the government to withdraw its invitation. Outside, around 7,000 protesters gathered with placards bearing slogans such as "Dump Trump, Fight Bigotry".
"It's about the rise of hate and extremism, which is personified by Trump. It's not just about him, but he represents what's happening in the world at the moment," said protester Alison Dale, 61.
Prime Minister May has said she will not consider cancelling the visit. Managing the backlash adds to her "to do" list as she sets about reuniting a country divided over Brexit and negotiating a divorce with its European trading partners.
But Mr Crispin Blunt, head of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said although a head-of-government visit by Mr Trump would be appropriate this year, a full state visit should wait until 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers' settlement in New England.
"If we don't take the hype out of this debate... there is every possibility that of course this visit is then going to become a rallying point for everybody who is unhappy with the direction of American policy, or British policy or anything else," he said.