Johnson faces a difficult challenge in establishing trust with Biden

Analysis: Democrat once described UK PM as ‘a physical and emotional clone’ of Trump

 US president Donald Trump (left) with UK prime minister Boris Johnson meet in December 2019. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

US president Donald Trump (left) with UK prime minister Boris Johnson meet in December 2019. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

 

Boris Johnson faces an awkward few months as he attempts to establish a relationship of trust with Joe Biden, who last December described the British prime minister as “a physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump.

Although it has long been the expected outcome in London, a Biden presidency creates some immediate complications for Johnson’s government, the first of which is that it increases the cost of failure to agree a post-Brexit deal with the European Union.

Unlike Donald Trump, who welcomed Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Biden has always opposed Brexit, an event many of his advisers view as an expression of the same kind of nativist populism that brought Trump to power.

During the 2016 referendum campaign, Johnson suggested that Barack Obama’s decision to move a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office reflected an anti-British prejudice rooted in his racial heritage.

Failure to agree a deal would leave Britain out of harmony with Washington’s other major European allies, which have been more successful at wooing the Biden team

“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” Johnson wrote.

Many of Biden’s senior advisers are veterans of the Obama administration who formed their view of the British prime minister when they heard that dog whistle.

Biden, who cherishes his Irish-American identity, shares the perception of many Democrats of his generation that the Belfast Agreement as a major US foreign policy achievement that Washington must protect.

Democratic candidate for US president Joe Biden campaigns at the Mt Zion Enrichment Center in Sumter, South Carolina in February. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
Democratic candidate for US president Joe Biden campaigns at the Mt Zion Enrichment Center in Sumter, South Carolina in February. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Imminent reckoning

So when Johnson’s government last September introduced the Internal Market Bill, which would allow ministers to break the Brexit withdrawal agreement and its Northern Ireland protocol, Biden gave Britain a blunt warning.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and the UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the returning of a hard border,” he said.

Downing Street confirmed this week that Britain would not respond to the European Commission’s letter of formal notice instigating an infringement proceeding over the Internal Market Bill. And in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson smirked as he dismissed Alliance MP Stephen Farry’s call for him to remove the bill’s offending clauses before Biden took office.

The moment of reckoning is imminent as Britain’s negotiations with the EU enter their endgame in the next week or two, while the House of Lords debates the Internal Market Bill. Since the treaty-breaking clauses were designed to give Britain leverage in the negotiations, Johnson is unlikely to remove them if he fails to agree a deal with the EU.

Failure to agree a deal would leave Britain out of harmony with Washington’s other major European allies, which have been more successful at wooing the Biden team. Both France and Germany are confident that a Biden administration would restore the transatlantic relationship and reaffirm America’s commitment to European security.

Even if Britain agrees a trade deal with the EU, Brexit has diminished its usefulness to Washington as an ally because it will no longer be able to influence decisions in Brussels.

Conservative discomfort

Uniquely in Europe, Britain is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and its security and defence apparatus has deep institutional links with Washington. Although Britain’s military capacity is diminished and its armed forces’ performance in Iraq and Afghanistan was patchy, it remains Washington’s most reliable military ally.

London is unlikely to be the first European capital Biden visits as president but Britain will host the G7 and COP26 summits next year, offering Johnson an opportunity to help the incoming president’s ambitions in foreign policy and on climate change.

A post-Brexit deal with the EU, full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, intense diplomatic effort and the fact that both Biden and Johnson have charm could smooth relations after a possibly bumpy start. But Trump’s stronger than expected performance and the Democrats’ disappointing congressional races could influence Johnson in a way that would slow down a full rapprochement.

A more emphatic defeat for Trump might have strengthened those within the Conservative party who are uncomfortable with its drift under Johnson to the populist right.

The survival of Trumpism and Nigel Farage’s return to the political stage with a re-branded, right-wing party, could slow down the Conservatives’ return to the mainstream and inhibit Biden’s acceptance of Johnson as a reliable ally for a president determined to restore democratic norms.

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