Biden and Johnson in display of warmth despite US impatience

President and prime minister reaffirm importance of alliance amid protocol impasse

Boris Johnson can be pleased that his 80-minute meeting with Joe Biden ended with warm words on both sides and a joint statement reaffirming the importance of their alliance. The section on Northern Ireland stressed both leaders' commitment to the Belfast Agreement and did not explicitly mention Brexit or the protocol.

The US president was never likely to embarrass Johnson in public at their first in-person meeting and ahead of a G7 summit that the White House views as an important moment in Washington's return to global leadership after the end of the Trump presidency. But Biden's actions ahead of the meeting ensured that the summit would be overshadowed by the impasse over the protocol and that the president's impatience with Johnson over the issue would be clear.

Neither the White House nor Downing Street on Thursday denied a remarkable report in the Times about a US démarche – or diplomatic rebuke – to Britain earlier this month. According to the paper, the most senior US diplomat in Britain delivered the démarche in person to Brexit minister David Frost and Downing Street foreign policy adviser John Bew.

Quoting from British government minutes of the meeting, the paper said Yael Lempert spoke of Biden's "great concern" over Johnson's stance on the protocol, suggesting that Britain was inflaming tensions over the issue.

“Lempert said the US was increasingly concerned about the stalemate on implementing the protocol. This was undermining the trust of our two main allies. The US strongly urged the UK to achieve a negotiated settlement,” the minutes said.

‘Unilateral decisions’

House ways and means chairman Richard Neal issued a statement after the meeting in Cornwall offering support for Biden's efforts to encourage Britain and the EU to reach a negotiated solution on the protocol, adding that "unilateral decisions and actions are not helpful to the process".

Downing Street said wearily on Thursday that the prime minister wanted the attention at the G7 summit to be on foreign policy, the environment and vaccines. But the protocol will be centre stage again on Saturday when Johnson meets EU presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel and holds separate talks with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Michel said on Thursday that the EU would use all the tools at its disposal “to make sure that we defend our interest” and Macron dismissed any suggestion that the protocol should be revisited to accommodate British concerns. Unlike Biden, the European leaders have no qualms about issuing their warnings in public even if it rains on Johnson’s G7 parade.