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20 January 2021

Why Boris Johnson’s Conservatives will struggle to adapt to the Biden era

The Tories gained nothing from their four-year love-in with Donald Trump – and now they are suffering the consequences.

By Paul Mason

Never forget Michael Gove’s co-interview with Donald Trump. Never forget the fawning questions, the implicit collusion as Trump – days before his inauguration – called the Steele dossier that detailed allegations of Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election “fake news“. Never forget that the toughest question Gove threw at Trump was: “Is there anything else you take from having a Scottish mother?”

For the Conservative right it was love at first sight, though there were rival suitors. Gove went to Trump Tower with Rupert Murdoch, on behalf of the hard Brexit faction of the Tory party. He assured Trump that “the PM wants to get a strong [trade] deal with the US” – to which Trump responded: “Well, how is our Nigel doing? I like him, I think he’s a great guy, I think he’s a very good guy and he was very supportive.”

A stunned Gove did what any grifting sycophant from Fleet Street would: he handed Trump a copy of his own book on Islamist terror, Celsius 7/7, reportedly written without spending any significant time in the Middle East. “That’s fantastic,” said Trump, “how to fight terrorism, I can use that.”

Four years later, Trump would speak to a gathering of his supporters, including militiamen whose communication later revealed they were planning to make “citizens’ arrests” on congressional leaders, before they stormed the Capitol. In the name of fighting terrorism he banned people from many Muslim countries from entering the US, stigmatised its own Muslim communities and said the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville included “some very fine people”. He would conduct a knowing disinformation campaign, attempting to overturn the results of a democratic election through subterfuge and pressure.

Gove’s book, published in 2006, when the West was becoming queasy about Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, urged Western governments to “reproclaim faith in our common values. We need an ideological effort to move away from moral relativism and towards moral clarity.” 

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How much moral clarity he saw in the face of Trump we will never know. Nor is it clear what the “common values” were that led Boris Johnson to call for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Or on what grounds the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said in December: “I’ll miss Donald Trump because he was quite a good friend to the UK… [his] position towards the United Kingdom in many areas was totally aligned with us.” 

Trump is the man who reportedly threatened in July 2018 to pull the US out of Nato, even as British soldiers stood guard over its eastern borders in Estonia. He reportedly told Theresa May to “not go into negotiations” with the EU, and pressed for the inclusion of the NHS in a UK-US trade agreement. Though Trump assured Gove that a deal would be “done quickly”, no such paper was ever signed.

Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, both of which the Conservatives remain committed to. He pulled US troops out of Syria at a time when British special forces were still in the country, jeopardising their deployment. And when the Tory government proposed a crowd-pleasing 2 per cent tax on the big tech companies, Trump’s US threatened to retaliate by levying tariffs on British-built cars.

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In short, it is hard to see what the Tories got out of their four-year love-in with Trump. But it is easy to understand the blowback. Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, speaks French like a native and spent part of his childhood there. Biden himself, who invoked his Irishness in an emotional farewell speech to Delaware, is reportedly furious with Johnson over his threat to break international law over Northern Ireland during the final phase of the Brexit talks.

Having basked in the aura of the orange-faced bigot in the White House for four years, the Johnson administration is going to have to reset pretty fast. And that’s a problem. Because beyond the obvious and enduring common interests – such as the Paris Agreement, Nato, nuclear deterrence – Johnson’s administration does not have a clue what its geopolitical strategy is.

In December 2019 the Prime Minister announced “the most radical reassessment of [the UK’s] place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, covering everything from defence to overseas aid and foreign policy. To read just the cover page of a report into the progress of the integrated review, published in August by the Defence Select Committee, is to understand the problem: it is entitled “In Search Of A Strategy”. One expert witness after another expressed doubt as to whether, in the midst of a pandemic, with the outcome of the US election still unknown, the Cabinet Office should try to entirely redesign UK foreign policy, with minimal external input and none from the opposition.

Johnson entered the Covid-19 crisis loudly insisting it would not deflect him from his vision of “Global Britain” – a plan to use the UK’s post-Brexit freedom to tear down trade barriers across the world. Always rhetorical and hubristic, the idea died a death once the pandemic thwarted international supply chains and soured the West’s relationship with China.

In truth there is only one geopolitical stance that makes sense for Britain, whether in a world led back from the brink of fragmentation by Biden and Blinken, or one disintegrating under the influence of men such as Trump: it is to be close to Europe.

Until Trump entered office, Brexit looked like an aberration. But his victory signalled the start of a process whereby the “rules-based multilateral order” would be allowed to disintegrate, with China, Russia and India claiming spheres of influence and freedom of action against their own dissident populations.

Biden’s victory does not necessarily signal the reversal of this process, only its pause. And the pause will be achieved, as Blinken has indicated, by the US rebuilding relations with its closest allies on the values scale – the UK, the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand), the EU, Japan and South Korea.

If Johnson, Gove and Wallace hadn’t needlessly committed moral capital to Trump and Trumpism, it would be easier for British diplomats to utter an audible sigh of relief and say, “Let’s get back to business.” But they did. 

The question facing Johnson now is not just, “How do I rewrite foreign policy on the back of an envelope?” but how do we, the British people, design national security solutions for a world where the US is both a fragile democracy and an unreliable ally.

To say, as Keir Starmer did blithely at the Fabian Society conference on 16 January, that Britain should be a “bridge between the US and the rest of Europe” is to ask the question: facing which way, and conveying what? Europe has no need of Britain as a transatlantic “bridge” for trade; in diplomacy, the UK has just squandered what goodwill it might have had as an interlocutor on Washington’s behalf in Brussels.

We face, for the next four years, a Europe determined to consolidate without us, with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the EU Commission aligned around visions of “strategic autonomy” and technological sovereignty. And a US that, yes, will recommit to Nato, but whose attention will remain firmly pivoted towards China and the Pacific.

The British Tories were mesmerised by Trump because, in their hearts, he is who they wanted to be: little Caesars brandishing a pistol in the face of the bourgeois world. Even now, after Trump’s defeat and insurrection at the Capitol, they are still cranking out anti-wokeness memes, attacks on “cultural Marxism” and dog-whistle demands for “liberties” in the face of the pandemic.

With few exceptions, the Conservative political elite disgraced themselves over Trump. As Johnson and Gove now have to simper and scrape, like classic British flunkies in a John le Carré book, enjoy the schadenfreude.