Joe Biden’s competence is the ghost at the feast at the Nato summit

Keir Starmer’s first visit to Washington is not the straightforward photo op he would have hoped for, with awkward questions about his defence spending commitments – and whether the US president is match-fit, writes Andrew Grice

Wednesday 10 July 2024 13:29 BST
Following his talks, Keir Starmer will inevitably be asked by the media how Joe Biden was and whether the 81-year-old is fit to serve another four years as president
Following his talks, Keir Starmer will inevitably be asked by the media how Joe Biden was and whether the 81-year-old is fit to serve another four years as president (AP)

Keir Starmer’s trip to the White House tonight for his first meeting with Joe Biden has unfortunate echoes of Tony Blair’s first visit in 1998. On that occasion, the cloud over the meeting was that the then US president Bill Clinton had just denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old intern.

Today, the ghost at the feast is that Biden is fighting for his political life, as a growing number of Democrats want him not to run for re-election in November after his disastrous performance in his TV debate with Donald Trump.

Long-serving officials in London and Washington note the parallels. I covered Blair’s visit and recall his aides were anxious about being dragged into a scandal which could have cost Clinton the presidency if he had lied (he was impeached but cleared). After Blair’s advisers took legal advice from a Washington law firm, he decided to get some brownie points by telling Clinton: “I am proud to call you a good colleague and friend.”

Following his talks, Starmer will inevitably be asked by the media how Biden was and whether the 81-year-old is fit to serve another four years as president. The advice from UK officials will be to swerve awkward questions by saying the US election is a matter for the American people.

Starmer has made a confident start as PM and looks the part. On the face of it, his debut on the world stage at the Nato summit in Washington is well timed. Everyone loves a winner, and other leaders will be bees to a honeypot. Starmer is all set for five years in power, while Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz have only a precarious grip on power.

Yet Starmer’s first overseas trip is not all a straightforward photo opportunity. The relatively easy soundbites of opposition have been replaced by the messy, hard choices of government. En route to Washington, the prime minister insisted defence is his “number one priority” and his commitment to spending more on it is “cast iron”.

But he is under mounting pressure to say precisely when the defence budget will hit 2.5 per cent of GDP, which the Conservatives pledged by 2030.  His appeal to other Nato members to boost defence spending is undermined by his refusal to give a specific timescale. He is still using opposition slogans, saying a defence review to be launched next week will provide a “road map” to 2.5 per cent. But the exercise could take almost a year.

I think Starmer is right to say Labour’s fiscal rules must come first because there will be many other pressing demands for spending. Richard Dearlove, the former MI6 head, told Times Radio today that defence is “more important than the NHS” but voters and Labour ministers rightly disagree.

There is another ghost at the feast to mark Nato’s 75th anniversary: Trump. Can the alliance “Trump-proof” aid for Ukraine so it will continue if he returns to the White House, and fast-track Ukraine to Nato membership? Both could be tricky.

Starmer, who has barely had time to catch his breath since the election, has discovered that the backdrop to foreign affairs also changes at breakneck speed.

During the campaign, Labour advisers told me the prospect of a Trump comeback would make it easier for Starmer to forge much closer relations with the EU because the bloc would “need us even more” on both defence and the economy. The PM regards reducing trade barriers with the EU as vital to securing higher growth (another “number one priority”).

But now Macron’s weakened position after the French parliamentary elections means he may not have the bandwidth to reset UK-EU relations. One EU diplomat told me: “It’s uncertain and unpredictable whether Macron will engage with the UK’s agenda.” Scholz’s position in Germany is similarly weak, and it is the Franco-German engine that drives the EU.

Starmer will probably land a new security pact with the EU but his hopes of extending it to migration – and the prize of a returns agreement allowing people crossing the Channel in small boats to be sent back – might now be dashed. This might persuade Starmer to reach for Blair’s solution – digital ID cards, despite ministers’ coolness in public. Yvette Cooper, the home secretary, is wary but there is work going on in Whitehall about the idea. Watch this space.

Although not all its voters will welcome it, the Starmer government is desperate to look “tough” on migration. Like the Tories, Labour is under pressure from Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, which came second behind Labour in 89 seats. It is dawning on Labour ministers that the traditional left-right divide is over; the splintered and volatile electorate signals anti-politics rather than anti-Tory sentiment.

Labour strategists are looking at how to combat Reform, amid fears Farage could appeal on economic issues as well as immigration to disaffected voters who feel ignored by politicians. Another reason why Labour must deliver the change it has promised.

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