Boris Johnson’s undiplomatic language jeopardises US-UK relations

Tossing aside American goodwill and support at this latest critical stage of efforts to ‘make Brexit work’ would be very unwise

Peter Westmacott
Monday 27 February 2023 12:04 GMT
Boris Johnson tries to shut down Brexit 'gloom mongering'

First we had “F*** business”. Now we have “F*** the Americans”.

“Boris is being Boris,” say the former prime minister’s apologists – as do some of those who wish he would just go away, but don’t wish to rock the Conservative boat by saying that Boris Johnson’s language and behaviour towards his successor-but-one is beyond the pale.

We have had to get used to a different kind of political discourse since Johnson became a significant political figure. He played the part of pantomime villain for laughs and applause, while his boosterism helped him to persuade 37 per cent of the electorate to vote to leave the European Union, and ultimately to win a general election in 2019.

His fellow heads of government also got used to him: “He’s a complete liar, and I don’t trust him an inch, but he’s more amusing than the others,” as one of his European peers put it. But language, like actions, has consequences – even when the former prime minister uses four-letter words in jocularity. Johnson has never wanted to accept that Biden is an Irish-American Catholic who cares deeply about the island of Ireland. Biden is, after all, one of the four Democratic senators who persuaded Bill Clinton in 1994 to take “a risk for peace” by allowing Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to visit the United States against the wishes of the British government. I was in Washington at the time – there was a huge row.

Biden has long been suspicious of the whole Brexit process, because he thought it was in the interests of the US (and the UK) that Britain remain in the EU. He was particularly concerned at its implications for the future of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Like many others who follow the Irish question, the president and his staff quickly realised that the Northern Ireland protocol, negotiated and then disowned by the then prime minister, was not a credible solution.

There is a widespread expectation that President Biden will visit the UK and Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the GFA, provided that a better way is found to keep Northern Ireland inside the single market while the rest of the United Kingdom – because of the hard Brexit negotiated by the Johnson administration – goes its own way.

US support for the peace process, and for the GFA itself, has been of great value, not least in providing reassurance to nationalists and others who are distrustful of the British government’s intentions. This week in Boston, I look forward to catching up with the current US special envoy to Northern Ireland, former congressman Joe Kennedy.

Washington admires the firm position Mr Johnson and his successors have taken on the moral and political imperative of supporting Ukraine. But there are doubts – recently restated by a senior US general – about our ability to match strong words with military capability.

Tossing aside American goodwill and support at this latest critical stage of efforts to “make Brexit work” would be very unwise. Clearly the current prime minister has no intention of behaving so irresponsibly, not to mention jeopardising a presidential visit.

It would help if his predecessor-but-one stopped making a difficult job impossible, and offending our closest ally and partner in the process, for reasons that appear to have little to do with the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Peter Westmacott was the British ambassador to the United States from 2012 to 2016

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