Boris Johnson must be leading a fairly lonely existence, cooped up in the flat at the top of No 10 with (one presumes) his fiancée and their baby. Since divorcing Marina Wheeler he has been ostracised by their four children. He is unable to see many friends or relatives because of Covid-19, and cannot attend the public functions that are normally part of a prime minister’s duties.
But he will be lonelier still if, as now seems probable, Donald Trump is defeated by Joe Biden in next week’s US presidential election, for Trump is probably the only other international leader that Johnson could conceivably call a “friend”.
As mayor of London in 2015, Johnson accused Trump of “a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president of the United States”, but that was then. Following Trump’s election, Johnson, by then foreign secretary, changed his tune. He accused the European Union of a “collective whinge-o-rama” about the new US president, adding there was “every reason to be positive” about a “liberal guy from New York”, one, he said, who “believes firmly in the values I believe in too – freedom and democracy”.
Trump called Brexit a “beautiful, beautiful thing”, and Johnson a “Britain Trump”. In 2018 Johnson told a private dinner that he was “increasingly admiring of Donald Trump”, arguing that if the president was negotiating Brexit “he’d go in hard…There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’s gone mad. But actually, you might get somewhere.”
Trump endorsed Johnson’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership last year. Johnson called Trump early on during his recovery from Covid-19 in April, even before his telephone audience with the Queen. Trump responded by describing Johnson as “so sharp and energetic, pretty incredible… He’s a friend of ours, a friend of mine.”
Biden, if elected, will doubtless establish a formal working relationship with Johnson, and pay lip service to the so-called “special relationship”. He and the Prime Minister may work together on combating climate change and reviving the Iran nuclear deal. But Biden and Johnson are polar opposites, both politically and personally.
Biden is of the centre-left, a progressive. He believes in multilateralism and international collaboration. He and President Obama opposed Brexit, and his priority will be to restore the US’s tattered relations with the EU, not the pursuit of a bilateral trade agreement with the UK. He is a proud Irish-American Catholic who will firmly resist any post-Brexit arrangements that jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden may also remember Johnson’s slur against his former boss. After Obama supported the Remain campaign during the EU referendum, Johnson wrote in the Sun that the president’s removal of Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office “was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”.
On two other counts Johnson would also feel much lonelier without his buddy in the White House. Firstly, Trump’s defeat would leave Johnson as the western hemisphere’s leading proponent of populist nationalism – a creed shared by such unsavoury characters as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Secondly, Johnson’s conduct would no longer appear relatively acceptable because Trump’s is so much worse. The Prime Minister would lose the political cover afforded by a US president more extreme and destructive than himself.
Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been shambolic, but Trump’s has been catastrophic. Johnson orchestrated Britain’s departure from the EU, but Trump has undermined every multinational institution from the United Nations and Nato to the World Trade and World Health Organisations. Johnson has divided Britain, but under Trump the US has been rent asunder. Johnson has made this country an international laughingstock, but Trump’s America is globally reviled.
It goes on. Johnson bends democratic norms while Trump smashes them. Johnson engages in mild demagoguery while Trump’s is outrageous. Johnson tells fibs, Trump absolute whoppers. Johnson flirts with xenophobia but Trump is overtly racist. Johnson seeks to avoid scrutiny while Trump vilified and fires those who try to hold him to account. Johnson rewards cronies but Trump is out-and-out corrupt. Johnson attacks the BBC, criticises the judiciary and fights cultural skirmishes. Trump seeks to destroy the mainstream media, packs courts with loyalists and wages all-out culture wars.
Johnson cannot be enjoying the premiership he so coveted. He never expected to face Britain’s worst crisis since the Second World War. He could not have anticipated the extreme constraints on his expansive lifestyle. He can no longer earn the substantial sums of money he needs to support his many offspring.
In my dreams he secures a flimsy but face-saving trade deal with the EU, completes Brexit on 31 December, and soon afterwards announces his resignation – blaming the lingering effects of Covid-19. He returns to writing, making money and indulging himself while Rishi Sunak tackles the appalling mess he has left behind.
I fear, alas, that to see the back of both those aberrations – Trump and Johnson – next year is too much to hope for.
[See also: Can Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump?]