Could Joe Biden save a US-UK trade deal?

Although the policy problem wouldn't change, the political one would. 

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The British government’s hopes of a US-UK trade deal face two major obstacles. The first is that the specific measures that a meaningful accord with the US would require are politically unpalatable, because they would mean significant changes to British agrifood. The second is that the incumbent US president, Donald Trump, is highly unpopular in Britain.

In a measure of how politically difficult it will be to get public acceptance for the necessary changes on agrifood, all of the UK’s big supermarkets have already vowed never to sell either chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-injected beef in their stores. While the reality is that there is more than a touch of hypocrisy in the major supermarkets talking about how much they care about sourcing, that they’ve been moved to do this is a pretty good guide to where public opinion is.

Those headwinds are made tougher still because a trade deal with the US means, at the moment, doing a deal with Trump – at least in the imagination of the average person in the UK. The policy reality is that none of the policies that are causing domestic upset here in Britain would be different should Joe Biden win the election in November, and in any case it’s more accurate to see the UK as negotiating not only with the US president but the US senate too. Whoever is in the White House after January 2021, the farm belt and American agribusinesses will be in power.

As I’ve written on several previous occasions, Tony Blair, with a much bigger parliamentary majority, had to retreat over genetically modified (GM) food in 2000 in the face of a similar coalition, and I remain sceptical in the extreme that the UK will ever strike a meaningful US-UK trade deal, at least not with a working majority of only 86 seats and a Downing Street that tends to U-turn and retreat under pressure.

Yet while the policies that people dislike wouldn’t change under Biden, the president would – and the exit from the scene by a president who the vast majority of British voters dislike and think is untrustworthy, would definitely make it easier for the British government to make concessions – not least because Trump is a shinier news story than good agricultural practices or anything to do with Biden.

That said, the National Farmers’ Union and other food campaigners have a pretty good track record of winning these fights even when there isn’t an unpopular president in the White House. It’s instructive that Blair’s retreat over GM food was already underway at the height of his popularity, when Bill Clinton, then beloved in the UK, was in the White House.

So Biden wouldn’t fix all of the British government’s trade deal problems, but he would render them less acute. There’s probably a window of opportunity for the UK to strike a meaningful US trade deal – in the immediate months after Biden’s potential inauguration, when the aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit are distracting the public. If those who want to keep current standards in food and farming succeed in pushing ratification of a US-UK trade deal past the summer of 2021, the chances are it will never happen.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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