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Joe Biden “dislikes Boris Johnson for his racist treatment of Obama”

Professor Sarah Churchwell said that the US president and Kamala Harris, his vice-president, distrust the Prime Minister.

By Zoë Grünewald

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris dislike Boris Johnson because they think he was “racist” in his treatment of Barack Obama, a professor has claimed.

Sarah Churchwell, the chair in public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Studies, University of London, told the New Statesman‘s Politics Live conference today (28 June) that the Prime Minister was “distrusted” and “disliked” by both the US president and his vice-president.

Relations between the American and British administrations have been strained by policy decisions and Brexit, especially Johnson’s approach to the arrangements for Northern Ireland, but Churchwell, who was born in Virginia, said the tension was personal as well. “I don’t think it’s just the case that Boris Johnson is distrusted by the administration,” she said. “He is also actively disliked. […] He’s disliked because they perceive him to have been racist in his treatment of Obama. Both Biden and Kamala Harris feel that way about Boris Johnson, and that’s a problem.”

Johnson was accused of being racist towards Obama, who was president at the time, in 2016, when he wrote an article for the Sun in which he suggested that the removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office could be construed as “a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”. False claims that Obama, whose father was Kenyan, was not born an American are the basis for a racist conspiracy theory that was popularised by Donald Trump.

Johnson has also been accused of racism for other articles, including a 2018 column in the Telegraph in which he compared Muslim women to “letterboxes” and a 2002 column, also in the Telegraph, in which he referred to people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. More recently, Johnson’s government has been accused of racism for its asylum deal whereby the UK government will relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda. During a panel discussion at the Politics Live conference on the Red Wall an audience member accused the Tories of “addled racism” for the deal.

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Churchwell’s comments were made during a panel discussion about US and UK relations “in the era of Biden and Brexit”, during which the panellists were discussing what had become of the “special relationship” between the two nations. Churchwell was joined by Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central and former chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, and Sir Robin Niblett, director of the foreign policy think tank Chatham House.

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Niblett and Benn had discussed how Brexit had impacted the relationship between the US and UK, with Benn specifically referencing the damage done by the Northern Ireland protocol. Niblett stated that Brexit was seen as an “act of self harm to the transatlantic relationship”, and that Johnson was “deeply distrusted” by the Biden administration both “as an individual and as a politician”.

When the panel was asked whether it believed a government led by Keir Starmer could potentially improve relations, Churchwell and Benn were in agreement that it could. Churchwell observed: “Everything would be more evidence-based. Both [Biden and Starmer] are fundamentally grown-ups. When you put Trump and Johnson in a room, they’re not having a grown-up conversation.”

[See also: Keir Starmer: If you don’t change your views you won’t succeed]