The working relationship between Boris Johnson and Joe Biden will likely be anything but special

The president-elect’s team will be wary of the prime minister, but there is common ground when it comes to the climate crisis

Andrew Grice
Saturday 07 November 2020 23:43 GMT
Joe Biden wins the US  presidential election

Boris Johnson, who has never met Joe Biden, must build bridges with the incoming US president at a very difficult time. The prime minister will need to convince Biden that the UK matters when it has turned its back on the EU.

When Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, the UK enjoyed more clout in the White House’s eyes because it could shape EU policy. Biden believes Brexit was a bad mistake and many of his Democratic allies have an unflattering view of Johnson as a Donald Trump-style populist.

Biden’s victory will increase the pressure on Johnson to reach a trade deal with the EU in negotiations that will probably be resolved one way or the other over the next 10 days. “No deal” would play badly with Biden, and might get Johnson’s relationship with him off to the worst possible start. 

Biden, who is proud of his Irish roots, was appalled in September when Johnson threatened to ditch the Northern Ireland protocol in the EU withdrawal agreement. “No deal” could revive such tensions, and in the process kill off any hopes of a US-UK trade agreement.

The PM’s allies are adamant he will not do an EU deal at any price. But if both sides can compromise, even a bare bones deal would give the UK a reasonable rather than hostile relationship with its neighbours – and a better one with Washington as it re-engages with the EU – rather than leaving London out in the cold.

Biden will be well aware of the close defence and intelligence links between the US and UK. Although Johnson can expect Team Biden's wariness of him to cause some initial turbulence, the PM’s allies can see some reasons to be cheerful.

Johnson’s trump card with Biden could be the climate crisis. The UK is hosting the COP26 UK conference in Glasgow in a year’s time. With Biden committed to being a global leader on the issue and to taking the US back into the Paris agreement, Johnson could prove a useful ally, for example in securing pledges from China and India.

It was noticeable that in his tweet congratulating Biden, Johnson put climate at the top of his list, saying: “The US is our most important ally and I look forward to working closely together on our shared priorities, from climate change to trade and security.”

Johnson will also host a G7 summit when the UK holds its rotating presidency next year. That will give the PM a chance to prove he shares Biden’s commitment to multilateral institutions rather than Trump’s narrow nationalism. There are also grounds for thinking that Johnson and Biden would be on the same page on China, Russia and the Iran nuclear deal. Some of Johnson’s ministers will not be sad to see the back of the unpredictable Trump, and will welcome the stability Biden will bring.

Sensing the Trump era was coming to an end, in recent months UK officials have hastily tried to forge links with the Democrats, apparently with only mixed results. In contrast, Labour has revived its close relationship with the Democrats, which withered during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Keir Starmer has joined influential Democrats in virtual sessions in which progressive parties compare notes.

Starmer has more in common with Biden than Johnson, and not just on party politics. They are unflashy centre-left figures who offer reassurance, in sharp contrast to the populists they oppose.

As usual, UK politicians are obsessed with the US election saga and rather too keen to draw conclusions that are relevant on the other side of the Atlantic. Labour left-wingers were ready to warn Starmer of the dangers of centrism if Biden had not won, but have now lost their ammunition. Instead, Starmer’s allies can take comfort from Biden’s victory.

But it wasn’t as big as Labour figures expected. Trump might (eventually) be out, but Trumpism will survive. That will give some hope to Johnson as, like Trump, he tries to hang on to the working class voters he won over from their traditional home on the left.

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