Choosing her words carefully, the Prime Minister said: “I am very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do,” while British diplomats waited in vain for the president to delete the tweets or offer any kind of apology.
May and other ministers tried to limit the damage by stressing the importance of Britain’s historic links with the US.
But on one of the darkest days for the transatlantic “special relationship”, an emergency debate in parliament heard MPs from all parties criticise the president as questions continued about whether he should be accorded a state visit as planned in 2018.
The justice minister, Sam Gyimah, said on BBC Question Time that he was “deeply uncomfortable” about the prospect of Trump visiting Britain but that it was “above his pay grade” as to what happened.
“I am deeply uncomfortable because he is deliberately divisive, and this would be divisive at a time when we are trying to unite our country,” he said.
Speaking in Amman, Jordan, May said: “The fact that we work together does not mean that we are afraid to say when we think that the United States have got it wrong and to be very clear with them. I am very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do.”
“Britain First is a hateful organisation. It seeks to spread division and mistrust in our communities. It stands in fundamental opposition to the values that we share as a nation – values of respect, tolerance and, dare I say it, common decency.”
Trump retweeted three videos from the account of Britain First’s deputy leader, Jayda Fransen – and later stoked the furore by sending another, late-night tweet urging May to focus on combating terrorism instead of criticising him.
Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, confirmed on Thursday that he had personally raised the issue of the tweets with the White House on Wednesday. He tweeted: “British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right, which seek to divide communities & erode decency, tolerance & respect.”
Responding to a flood of critical responses to a callout he had started on Twitter, Johnson said: “Thank you for your questions and feedback. I have relayed your concerns to Washington. The US & UK have a long history of speaking frankly with each other, as all close friends do. Our relationship is strong, vital and enduring.”
British government officials would like action to be taken as a result of UK diplomats setting out the nature of Britain First to the White House, but stressed the UK was not in a position to make demands that the president delete his tweet, or apologise.
Officials were eager to underline how forcefully the UK had made its points to the White House, but clearly the UK does not want to get locked into a stand-off with the president.
It was also being stressed that the row over the tweet will not damage wider UK-US relations, but at the same time it should not be underestimated how seriously both the prime minister and the foreign secretary felt about the matter.
Senior figures from the UK and the US are due to next meet at a Nato foreign ministers’ gathering in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and the two sides would like to appear reunited on ways to fight terrorism by then.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, told MPs that Trump was wrong to retweet propaganda from Britain First, but warned the president’s critics to remember the “bigger picture” of the UK’s close relationship with the US.
“The importance of the relationship between our countries and the unparalleled sharing of intelligence between our countries is vital,” she said. “It has undoubtedly saved British lives. That is the big picture here, and I would urge people to remember that.”
May became the first world leader to visit Trump in Washington last year, telling reporters that “opposites attract”. The moment when he grasped her hand in the grounds of the White House provided a potent visual symbol of what Downing Street hoped would be a mutually beneficial relationship, as Britain seeks to forge post-Brexit trade deals with other major economic powers.
But Trump’s increasingly volatile behaviour has underlined doubts in Westminster about the prime minister’s judgment in seeking such a close alignment with the maverick US leader and her decision to invite the president for a state visit.
May was in Amman on the last stop of a three-day tour of the Middle East, to meet Jordanian officials and deliver a foreign policy speech about Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the region. But her visit was overshadowed by the row.
In Westminster, Labour MP Stephen Doughty, who had tabled an urgent question to Rudd, said: “This is the president of the United States, sharing with millions inflammatory and divisive content, deliberately posted to sow hatred and division by, as the home secretary says, a convicted criminal who is facing further charges and who represents a vile fascist organisation seeking to spread hatred and violence in person and online. By sharing it, he is racist, incompetent or unthinking – or all three.”
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said Trump’s actions were “offensive not just to British people of Muslim heritage and British people of black and minority ethnic heritage, but to all decent British people”.
Bradford West MP Naz Shah said: “Not only has the commander-in-tweet done this, but he has defended it, publicly chastising the British prime minister for her comments. Putting aside the question of a state visit, should he even be allowed to enter our country?”
When veteran Tory MP Peter Bone said the prime minister should urge Trump to delete his controversial Twitter account, Rudd appeared to agree, replying: “I am sure that many of us share his view.”
Trump accepted the invitation of a full state visit from the Queen when May visited the White House. But no date was set in the latest Queen’s speech and privately ministers do not expect it to take place in the foreseeable future, amid the threat of large-scale public protests.
The husband of Jo Cox – the Labour MP murdered by a far-right extremist who shouted “Britain first” – said people were used to Trump stoking outrage, but even so this was a “new low” for him. Brendan Cox said the issue was not about the diplomatic fallout, but that it legitimised hate.
In the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, he said: “Providing a microphone to these types of views has a real impact. Hatred when you feed it has real costs – my family is just one example of that and there are many other examples in our society.” He argued that it “gives licence to people” to act on that hatred.
But he added that the response gave reason for optimism. “I think the reaction to it has been one of incredible unity – right across the political spectrum people were aghast.” (The Guardian)