Four years ago, some Downing Street figures felt they had found an ally in Donald Trump.
Owing to what The New York Times describes as the president’s “full-throated endorsement of Brexit”, America appeared to be a “safe harbour” for UK ambitions abroad – and a safe bet for securing a lucrative trade deal.
But as the 31 December deadline for the Brexit transition period looms, the hoped-for riches of a UK-US deal are yet to materialise, leading some Whitehall insiders to look to Joe Biden to breathe new life into the “special relationship”. With just two weeks to go until the US presidential election, what exactly could the result mean for Britain?
Johnson’s ‘Trump card’
The polls do not look great for Trump, with his Democrat rival edging key swing states and holding a commanding lead among voters nationally. But writing off Trump is never a good idea, as Hillary Clinton’s team learned to their cost in 2016.
Under the electoral college system, Trump could get over the line for a second term without winning the popular vote. According to latest Pew Research Center polling, the incumbent certainly wouldn’t secure the backing of UK voters, with only 19% of Brits expressing confidence in the US president.
Indeed, a Trump victory in the 3 November election would “throw up a particularly acute personal dilemma” for Boris Johnson, writes The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour.
Johnson “knows Trump is wildly unpopular with the British electorate”, but the prime minister has “invested heavily in his relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law”, according to Wintour.
But that investment of time and energy could be fruitless if Biden edges Trump out of power. Conversely, a two-term Trump administration could prove valuable to Johnson.
The Tory leader “staked his career on betting against the EU and won”, says The Washington Post, which argues that “the self-proclaimed Mr Brexit” is likely to secure a better trade deal from his friends in the White House than the UK could extract from more hostile European leaders in the bloc.
However, “current and former officials in Washington and London caution that private negotiations are more complex than the public Trump and Johnson bromance would suggest”, the paper adds.
Ivan Rogers, the former British ambassador to the EU, told The Guardian that Johnson “is quite Trumpite in method – he was always fascinated by Trump and his strategy to take the other side by surprise and destabilise it”. But this approach, when used against each other, could frustrate the future partnership between Johnson’s government and a second Trump administration.
“No diplomat in the Trump administration can speak with authority across the table with a counterpart, whether a friend, adversary, competitor, because there is no real policy,” Brett McGurk, the US diplomat who led the fight against Islamic State, told the paper.
“There is no real policy and the president just shifts on a dime and everybody knows it. And that makes the basic blocking and tackling – the fundamentals of diplomacy – very hard.”
Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the US, told The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor in September that Johnson’s government appeared “very confident, pre-pandemic, that Trump would win”. But powers beyond Trump’s control have turned politics on its head – leaving both the president and Downing Street on tenterhooks as polling day approaches.
Biden his time
Unlike Trump, who has previously heaped praise on Johnson, Biden has remained fairly tight-lipped about the PM. But the Democratic candidate’s immediate circle know all about Johnson, who infamously wrote that Biden’s close friend and former boss Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike of the British” as a result of his “part-Kenyan” heritage.
Downing Street “may have been complacently slow to get alongside Trump’s opponent”, in stark contrast to Johnson’s friendly overtures to the Republican incumbent, The Guardian’s Wintour writes.
Biden is shaped by his Catholic upbringing and is a proud Irish-American, a background that makes his “commitment to the Good Friday Agreement a matter of principle, not electoral politics”, says the New Statesman’s US editor Emily Tamkin.
In September, the former vice-president said that “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border” on the island of Ireland – a commitment that should not be dismissed as “normal politicking”, Tamkin writes.
“It would certainly be convenient for a British politician to pretend that a meaningful Irish-American voting bloc exists,” she adds. But “in 2020 when Americans speak of different voting blocs, they rarely speak about the ‘Irish American vote’”.
Biden was not playing for votes, but is truly wedded to the deal, repeatedly voicing his commitment to peace in Ireland on the campaign trail and tweeting that the open border cannot become a “casualty of Brexit”.
That personal connection means Johnson’s Internal Markets Bill, which undermines elements of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Ireland, marked a discordant start to relations with the potential future president.
Meanwhile, if Trump’s attraction to the UK post-Brexit was built on creating discord in Europe, Biden’s focus will be on “the importance of alliances”, Wintour says.
“One of Biden’s priorities will be to repair the relationship with Europe. That will give us less clout,” former US ambassador Darroch told The Guardian. This assessment was echoed by Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat in the Bush and Clinton administrations, who notes that “Britain will no longer be able to be the great connector between the EU and the US as it was over the past several decades”.
Democrats have voiced a desire to work more closely with Germany, owing to its influence in the EU, and Ireland, due to Biden’s heritage, on the European stage.
So with the UK out of the loop on the goings-on in Brussels, the British government could find itself drifting further from the circle of influence in Biden’s White House.