One of Downing Street’s more irritating traits under Boris Johnson is its tendency to place blame anywhere but on its own doorstep. Its agenda to reshape the civil service, and its mid-flight reorganisation of England’s public health structures, seem less motivated by a deep and serious engagement with the flaws of the British state, and more by a desire to shift the responsibility for the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic to someone other than Boris Johnson.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States has prompted more evasion, although when it comes to the disease of blame-shifting, the R rate in No 10 seldom falls below one. The problem? That Johnson and the Vote Leave group at the top of government are held in low esteem by the incoming Biden administration. Its scepticism is helpful to Keir Starmer and his desire to show that the age of loud and combustible leaders, symbolised by Johnson and Trump, is coming to an end – and a new era of steady, unflashy leadership, personified by Starmer and Biden, is beginning.
It’s true that the Democratic establishment has close ties with senior figures in Starmer’s team, such as David Lammy, and that many in Biden’s circle see Johnson and Brexit as analogous to Trump. Downing Street has two explanations for this.
First, liberal media outlets such as the New York Times and Guardian have sold the idea that Trump is Brexit and Brexit is Trump. Second, in the Democratic imagination, the close working relationship between Barack Obama and David Cameron meant that Johnson’s defeat of Cameron and Remain connects him with the forces that helped defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and create more conservative judges on the US Supreme Court.
This ignores that the biggest impediment to Johnson forming a good relationship with Biden’s team isn’t anything that has been written in liberal newspapers on either side of the Atlantic, or that epochal defeats for Clinton and Cameron fell in the same calendar year. Instead, the problem stems directly from Johnson’s suggestion in the Sun newspaper during the 2016 EU referendum that the “part-Kenyan” Obama’s “ancestral dislike” of the British empire may have been why a bust of Winston Churchill was removed from the White House. The reason that senior Democrats, despite being publicly cordial towards a traditionally close ally, speak privately of Johnson as a Trump-lite figure is because he introduced himself as one. The then mayor of London first came to their attention as someone willing to give a nudge and a wink to racist conspiracies about the US’s first black president.
Johnson’s allies are frustrated that greater media attention has not been given to his remark on 8 December 2015 that the only reason not to visit New York was the risk of bumping into Donald Trump, and to the wide range of policy objectives that he shares with Biden. But they have no one to blame but the Prime Minister. The simplest and most effective way not to be associated with Trumpism is to avoid making Trumpian remarks.
Despite Downing Street’s unattractive shirking of responsibility, however, its overarching analysis is correct: the election of Joe Biden is good for the Johnson government and its policy aims. Biden is an unequivocal supporter of Nato and is warmer than Trump on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which eased sanctions on Iran in return for the dismantling of the country’s nuclear programme, and which the British government has defended. Most importantly, Biden believes in man-made climate change and understands that tackling it is an urgent task for global governments.
Alignment on such defining issues means more than the new American government’s private doubts about Johnson’s character. Personal credibility between international leaders is useful when one leader wants the other to go further than they might wish, but all Johnson needs from Joe Biden is that he continues to be Joe Biden.
Johnson and Biden are at odds on one important matter, however: Brexit in general, and the British government’s approach to the Northern Irish border in particular. Biden has criticised the government’s plan to reopen the border protocol as something that potentially endangers the Good Friday Agreement. The reality, however, is that the position of the US president-elect is the least of Britain’s worries about the Irish border. Anything that calls into question the status quo on the island of Ireland would jeopardise any chance of a US-UK trade agreement commanding a majority in Congress, and sabotage hopes of an EU-UK trade deal. Most importantly, it would risk reopening Northern Ireland’s violent political conflicts.
In any case, the British government has essentially abandoned pursuing a significant trade deal with the US because of concessions to domestic opinion, on healthcare and agriculture in particular. Any deal between the two nations will be thin.
That speaks to Downing Street’s biggest problem – one that is clarified rather than altered by Biden’s victory. Having left the EU, the United Kingdom’s former role of a bridge between the US and EU no longer applies.
Under Johnson, the Conservatives lack the courage or the conviction to argue for the disruption and upheaval that a meaningful US-UK trade deal would require, for farmers in particular.
So what’s left? Downing Street has no coherent vision for its diplomatic and political strategy, and the blame for that lies inside, not outside, the building.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump