Britain’s Boris Johnson sees himself and Donald Trump as kindred spirits. The British leader, who has taken as much delight as the U.S. President in upending political norms and establishment conventions, had been banking on securing a transatlantic trade deal early in a second Trump term.
Trump, too, has praised Johnson, dubbing him “Britain Trump.”
But Johnson’s ministers and officials are now scrambling to improve their contacts with the Democrats, hedging bets as Downing Street electoral calculations have shifted. British officials, who are watching the opinion polls closely, are now reckoning that Trump’s challenger, Democrat nominee Joe Biden, could win next month’s presidential race, potentially throwing into disarray their trade-deal ambitions.
“Ministers have been told to forge links with the White House frontrunner Joe Biden after ‘writing off’ Donald Trump’s chances of re-election,” according to Tim Shipman, the political editor of Britain’s Sunday Times. Shipman, who’s widely acknowledged to enjoy good contracts with Downing Street insiders, say ministers fear Britain risks being be “left out in the cold,” if Biden wins.
British officials say they worry Biden will prioritize a trade agreement with the European Union or be more focused on a trans-Pacific trade deal, which was negotiated by Obama’s White House but abandoned by President Trump. And that they will be much less concerned about a smaller bilateral deal with London, which could help Britain offset some of the trade losses of Brexit.
Like Barack Obama, Biden disapproved of Brexit. Obama openly backed Britain remaining in the EU, famously warning that the country would diminish itself, be less useful for the U.S. and would be placed at the “back of the queue” when it come to trade deals, in the event Britain left the EU.
In a speech in Dublin the day after the 2016 Brexit referendum Biden condemned “reactionary politicians and demagogues,” adding the Obama administration: “We’d have preferred a different outcome” from the Brexit plebiscite.
The ruling Conservatives have followed the traditional diplomatic practice of remaining strictly neutral on the White House race. They broke with that norm in 1992, when it emerged they had trawled Foreign Ministry files looking for any embarrassing information on Bill Clinton, who had studied at Britain’s University of Oxford. The move outraged the Democrats, shaping frosty relations from the get-go between then Conservative prime minister John Major and the new Democrat U.S. president.
Biden & BoJo
Biden himself has been dismissive of Johnson in the past, describing the British leader at a fundraiser early in the primary race for the Democratic nomination as “a physical and emotional clone of the president.”
In recent weeks British ministers have noticeably upped the tempo of their meetings with top Democrats.
Dominic Raab, the foreign minister, met Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, and other senior congressional Democrats last month, including Senator Chris Coons, who now occupies the Delaware seat Biden held for 36 years. Coons could be a possible Biden pick for Secretary of State, although most Democratic insiders see him being earmarked to act as the shepherd for the legislative priorities of a President Biden.
During last month’s meeting Raab sought to assuage mounting Democratic fears that Brexit would end up undermining peace on the island of Ireland.
Bill Clinton helped to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Democrats, along with leaders of the Irish Republic, worry Brexit will lead to a so-called ‘hard border’ appearing along the frontier separating the two halves of Ireland.
Pelosi warned Rabb that there will be no trade deal with the U.S., if Brexit ends up threatening the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and a beacon of hope for peace-loving people throughout the whole world,” Pelosi said in a statement following her talks with Raab. “Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement — the stability brought by the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland,” she added.
Biden was similarly blunt in a tweet last month. “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden wrote. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period,” he added.
We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 16, 2020
Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period. https://t.co/Ecu9jPrcHL
Biden aides say the responses on Brexit and Northern Ireland have been coordinated between the Biden campaign and senior congressional Democrats.
In private, Conservative officials and lawmakers are divided over who would be the better candidate from their perspective to win the White House race, VOA has found in off-the-record conversations.
Full-throated advocates of Brexit and those who want a clean break with the EU tend to favor Trump, seeing him as an ideological populist ally who is as equally disdainful of the EU.
Nigel Farage, Brexit Party leader and a friend of the U.S. president, Sunday said Trump’s reelection would be the best outcome for Britain. Writing in Britain’s Sunday Express, he warned Biden “sees Brexit as a mistake.” He added “I do not see any prospect of a free-trade deal with the U.S. under President Joe Biden.”
Those who opposed Brexit, or want Britain to forge close ties with the 27-member bloc they’ve just left, tend to favor Biden. They worry about the future of NATO in a second Trump term.
In June, John Sawers, the former head of Britain MI6 intelligence agency, said Trump’s re-election would be problematic. “There is no doubt President Trump is the most difficult president for us to deal with,” he said. “He does not really feel that sense of being part of that transatlantic community, he does not really believe in alliances,” he added.
Some pro-EU lawmakers also suspect that a Biden win would likely force Johnson to offer more compromises in ongoing fraught talks with the EU about Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.
Either way, British Conservatives fear they will likely face a difficult time with a Biden administration. Johnson and Biden’s world views are very different. Biden is said to have taken as much offense as Obama over a newspaper column Johnson wrote when he was mayor of London in which he accused Obama of being “part-Kenyan” and harboring an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
Some former British diplomats are worried that Brexit “chickens will come home to roost” with a Biden administration.
While they are confident close U.S.-British security ties will endure, they have feared ever since the Brexit referendum that overall London will become less important than Berlin and Paris for the U.S.
“We have given up a key role we have played for the U.S. for decades — as America’s deputy within the European camp, cajoling and lobbying on behalf of the U.S.,” frets a former British ambassador. “As the EU develops a common security and foreign policy, Britain won’t be able to help influence it, reducing our leverage with Washington,” he added.
Speaking last month in a video chat hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of State , who is also being tipped as a possible secretary of state in a Biden administration, emphasized that post-Trump a key policy objective will be to improve relations with the EU.