Theresa May defended the decision to invite Donald Trump on a state visit as thousands of protesters took to the streets across the UK.
The prime minister made the briefest of responses to the domestic uproar over the US president’s attempt to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, insisting that the “UK takes a different approach”. Addressing the issue during a joint press conference with the Irish taoiseach, Enda Kenny, May stood by the red carpet invitation she had made during her meeting with Trump in the White House on Friday.
“The United States is a close ally of the United Kingdom.We work together across many areas of mutual interest and we have that special relationship between us,” she said. “I have issued that invitation for a state visit for president Trump to the United Kingdom and that invitation stands.”
However, she refused to go further and criticise her American counterpart despite mass condemnation of his decision to bar nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days.
At the same press conference, Kenny voiced disagreement with the executive order announced by Trump.
The comments came as Downing street advisers did not deny claims that May had been informed about Trump’s plans to impose the travel ban when she met the president.
Thousands took to the streets in cities across the UK, including Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh and in London.
Crowds gathered just metres from the gates of Downing Street, chanting: “Shame on May.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, wrote to the prime minister to urge her to listen to more than a million Britons who had called on her to cancel the state visit, in which Trump could address both houses of parliament. “This world defeated segregation, we defeated apartheid and we will defeat this nasty policy created to sow division and hatred,” he said. “His invite should be withdrawn until the executive orders are gone and every element of them repealed.”
Some shadow cabinet members joined protestors, including Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary.
Earlier, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, warned MPs not to demonise Trump or compare him to Adolf Hitler in a statement on the escalating row.
Johnson told parliament that British passport holders with dual nationalities would now not be affected by the US travel ban after further conversations with senior figures within the White House.
Following confusion caused by a US embassy notice telling UK dual nationals from the affected countries not to travel to the US, he said: “I’m able to provide the following clarification: the general principle is that all British passport holders remain welcome to travel to the US.
“We have received assurances that this executive order will make no difference to any British passport holder irrespective of their country of birth or if they hold another passport.”
Johnson said he believed that the US decision to implement the so-called extreme vetting for nationals from the seven countries was “divisive, discriminatory and wrong”. But he argued that Trump was right to say that it did not amount to a ban on Muslims.
Johnson repeatedly defended the new American leader and suggested his “bark is considerably worse than his bite”. He accused Labour of “pointlessly demonising” him.
The foreign secretary said it was right that a close and important ally was welcomed to a state visit, pointing out that such an invitation was even extended to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Romania’s Nicolae Ceauescu.
Number of Conservative backbenchers urged the British government not to interfere in American domestic policy, with Julian Lewis MP saying the Atlantic alliance was critical to security in the UK.
MPs from all parties took to their feet to express alarm at Trump’s executive order, with many offering repeated references to the the politics of the 1930s.
Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour MP known for his combative outbursts on the floor of the Commons chamber, used the debate to brand Trump a fascist. “Will the foreign secretary just for a moment try to recall how I hid under the stairs as two fascist dictators — Hitler and Mussolini — rained bombs on towns and cities in Britain?” he asked.
“Now this government is hand in hand with another fascist: Trump.Do the decent thing and ban the visit.This man is not fit to walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela.”
Mike Gapes, a Labour MP, called the prime minister “Theresa the appeaser”, sparking an angry reaction from some MPs.
Ben Howlett, a Conservative backbencher, quoted a speech by Winston Churchill about countries remaining neutral in the war, saying: “Each ones hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough the crocodile will eat him last.”
He said: “This dangerous trend towards nationalism which we have not seen since the 1930s inflicting itself on the western world has wrongly been defined as populism.
It is clear this executive order needs to be condemned.”
Johnson hit back at the comparisons, arguing that they were inappropriate. “I completely agree we must stand up against bigotry and nationalism.
But I do draw the line at the comparison made relentlessly this afternoon between the elected government of our closest and most important ally, a great democracy, and the anti-democratic cruel and barbaric tyrannies of the 1930s,” he said.
“Continually to use the language of appeasement demeans the horror of the 1930s and trivialises our conversation.”
The warnings about rising nationalism came amid a string of other interventions from Conservatives angry about the US policy, including a plea from the Iraqi-born MP Nadhim Zawahi, who urged Trump to reconsider as a compassionate Christian.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, led Labour’s response, demanding more action from the government to protect UK residents from the seven countries affected by the ban, citing examples of people stranded and held at airports.
She also pressed Johnson on Downing Street’s slow response to the order, with the government only promising to intervene on behalf of UK nationals 27 hours after it came into force. “In their discussions about terrorism and security, was this imminent order mentioned? I don’t know what’s worse, that the president would have such little respect for the prime minister that he wouldn’t think of telling her, or that he did and she didn’t think it sounded wrong,” she said.
Yvette Cooper, who chairs parliament’s home affairs select committee, was shaking as she made an emotional intervention, saying: “One of our closest allies has chosen to ban refugees and target Muslims and all [Johnson] can say is that it wouldn’t be our policy. That is not good enough.”
Demonstrators protest outside Downing Street.