Downing Street isn’t ready for a Joe Biden victory – but not for the reason you think

The US election outcome that the UK is truly unprepared for is Donald Trump refusing to leave office if Biden wins. 

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How panicked is the British government about a Joe Biden victory next week, and how worried should it be?

It’s possible, of course, that following a widespread and large polling error, a late swing or another event, Donald Trump is re-elected. But it’s not especially likely: our prediction model puts Biden’s chances at around 87.3 per cent, which feels about right to me. (In 2016 I didn’t think Trump was likely to win, but I was willing to bet a tenner on it because the odds were so good. His odds are still good now, but I don’t think it’s worth the ten quid.)

I think there are important demographic, cultural and political differences between Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, the 2016 Brexit vote and the 2019 UK general election, but among many in the Democratic political establishment, including those likely to have positions of influence in or around a Biden administration, these results are one and the same. Add the fact that neither Biden nor his allies have forgotten Johnson’s inexcusable comment that Barack Obama’s advocacy for a Remain vote arose from his part-Kenyan “ancestral dislike” of the UK, and a Biden victory looks like a cold world for No 10.

But while this analysis has a true foundation, it goes too far. Personal coldness between a Biden White House and a Johnson Downing Street is not an ideal way forward for Britain, but the policy reality is that the US and the UK still have deep and long-standing defence and intelligence sharing, as well as shared geopolitical interests including the Iran nuclear deal, the future of Nato and, most importantly, climate change. At the top of the Conservative Party, there are plenty who are genuinely committed to serious action on climate change – Rishi Sunak is one, Michael Gove is another, while the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, is an experienced environmental campaigner. Even those who are less engaged are aware that the UK’s COP presidency, aside from its importance in the diplomatic calendar, is also an important moment politically to show that the Johnson government can deliver, well, anything really.

[see also: How Joe Biden’s foreign policy would not be a total departure from that of Donald Trump]

As one Foreign Office official put it to me, there is a sense they have at least found “a modus vivendi”: a way of living with the Trump presidency, even though he is unaligned with British interests and objectives on a variety of issues. The general consensus is that in the early days of Trump, when Theresa May was prime minister and Boris Johnson foreign secretary, they struggled to understand or predict the president. Matters improved a little bit in the latter half of May’s premiership, when Jeremy Hunt was at the Foreign Office, but under Johnson and Dominic Raab they have reached a point where they can navigate a Trump presidency.

Indeed, since Johnson became Prime Minister, the government’s under-reported diplomatic successes have come precisely because there is a gap between Trump and Johnson. At the G7 and throughout the government’s talks with Europe on security, Johnson has made it clear that, from the Iran deal to the Baltic states, he is a European, not a Trumpist. 

While the UK’s diplomatic options are altered and in some cases curtailed by Brexit (the notion of being the “Atlantic Bridge” falls apart when you are not a member of the European Union: what, exactly, do people think the United Kingdom was acting as a bridge to?), there’s a tendency in some circles to paint a picture of profound and unbroken weakness. On security, the United Kingdom and France remain the dominant regional powers, with a deepening level of defence integration and a broad commonality of outlook on foreign threats, both for good and for ill.

Whether the UK has a relationship with the US founded on mutual interests, but in which there is a great deal of personal antipathy under Biden, or has to persist with the Foreign Office’s modus vivendi, the British state is actually fairly well-prepared and well-placed for either a Biden or a Trump win. There is an unlikely but plausible situation that the Foreign Office and the British government as a whole is spectacularly ill-prepared for, however: an election in which Biden is palpably the winner (fairy likely), but Trump refuses to accept the outcome (highly likely in any situation he does not win), and succeeds in preventing Biden from taking office (highly unlikely, but possible).

[see also: What record levels of voter turnout could mean for the US 2020 election]

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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