Boris Johnson admits trade deal with US under Biden will not be a ‘pushover’

PM insists he will push ahead with Northern Ireland measures opposed by president-elect

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 10 November 2020 16:56 GMT
Boris Johnson admits trade deal with US will not be a 'pushover'

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Boris Johnson has cast doubt on the prospects of a trade agreement with the US under the president-elect, Joe Biden, saying a deal will not be “a pushover”.

The prime minister instead talked up the chances of close cooperation with the Biden administration on climate change, as Britain prepares to host the crucial COP26 international summit in 2021.

In the wake of Mr Biden’s victory, Mr Johnson faces an urgent challenge to forge links with a president-elect whom he has never met and who has previously described him as a “physical and emotional clone of Trump”.

After the Biden camp refused all contacts with foreign governments during the election campaign, the British ambassador in Washington, Dame Karen Pierce, is understood to be leading a drive to build links with those likely to play roles in his administration. 

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said that Mr Johnson hoped to speak with the president-elect “shortly”, though few expect him to be first on the list of foreign leaders to speak with Mr Biden.

Closer trading arrangements with the US have long been cherished as one of the main benefits of leaving the EU by Brexiteers, including Mr Johnson, who said in 2017 that Britain was “first in line to do a great free trade deal” with the Trump administration.

But while Mr Trump was an enthusiastic backer of both Brexit and a deal, Mr Biden has been more circumspect, warning that an agreement will be off the table if the process of leaving the EU puts peace in Northern Ireland at risk.

And an unnamed Biden campaign foreign policy adviser told The Daily Telegraph that talks with Britain would not be a priority in the new president’s first 100 days in office, when he is expected to concentrate on the coronavirus, economic recovery, immigration reform, infrastructure and climate change.

Democrat senator Chris Coons, a close ally of Biden who has been tipped as a potential secretary of state in the new administration, played down the prospect of a swift deal.

While telling BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that talks on closer trade links would be “one of the most important aspects of the US-UK relationship”, Senator Coons said: “We’re going to have our hands full working through the pandemic now that it is surging again in both of our nations, restoring the vibrancy of our economy.”

Speaking in public for the first time since Mr Biden’s victory, the normally bullish prime minister stopped well short of saying that a deal would be done.

“On the trade deal with the US, I'm a keen student of the United States’ trade policy and they're tough negotiators,” he told the AP news agency.

“And I've never believed that this was going to be something that was going to be a complete pushover under any US administration.

“I think there's a good chance we'll do something. [International trade secretary] Liz Truss and her team have made a huge amount of progress and we'll get on.”

Mr Johnson insisted he will press ahead with legislation allowing UK ministers to override last year’s Northern Ireland protocol, which sparked an angry reaction from Mr Biden earlier this year.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” warned Biden at the time of the publication of the Internal Market Bill. “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Provisions relating to Northern Ireland are expected to be struck out by peers as the bill returns to the House of Lords in the coming week. And the European parliament has indicated that it will not ratify a UK/EU trade deal if the measures become law.

However, asked if he would ensure the legislation passes “as it is”, Mr Johnson replied, “Yes”, adding that he had informed the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in a phone call yesterday that “the parliamentary timetable goes ahead”.

Mr Johnson congratulated Mr Biden and the vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, and brushed aside doubts over his future relationship with them.

“The United States is our closest and most important ally, and that's been the case under president after president, prime minister after prime minister,” he said. “It won't change. 

“I look forward to working with President Biden and his team on a lot of crucial stuff for us in the weeks and months ahead – tackling climate change, trade, international security and many, many, many, many other issues.”

He added: “I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change.

“The UK was the first major country to set out that objective of net zero by 2050. We led the way a few years ago. And we're really hopeful now that President Biden will follow and will help us to deliver a really good outcome of the COP26 summit next year in Glasgow.”

Mr Raab played down comments from a former White House staffer who said the Democrats would “never forget” Johnson’s closeness to Trump and his comments about Barack Obama’s “half-Kenyan” heritage.

Responding to the PM’s message of congratulations to Mr Biden last night, Tommy Vietor – a former spokesperson for president Obama – tweeted: “This shapeshifting creep weighs in. We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.”

But Mr Raab told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I’m sure you'll be able to find snippets of discord in the aftermath of a campaign.

“I'm absolutely confident in the bedrock of values and interests that we share, because when America wants to act in the world it has no more reliable friend than the United Kingdom.”

Labour’s Emily Thornberry said that the Johnson administration had “sucked up” to Mr Trump and got nothing in return, pointing to the failure to do a trade deal, the imposition of punitive tariffs on British goods, and the refusal to extradite the wife of a CIA operative to face trial over the death of 19-year-old motorcyclist Harry Dunn.

The shadow international trade secretary told Sophy Ridge: “They … have spent their time holding his hand and sucking up to him and hoping to get something, some crumbs from the table and how has that worked? We've got nothing from that.

“There has been a general approach, a populist approach, from Boris Johnson, which I think he has in common with Donald Trump and that is why they had they had such a close friendship.

“That's why they have been so mutually congratulatory. And it will be very difficult, I think – not impossible but very difficult – to move from that to being close to Joe Biden.”

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