In Downing Street, as rumoured in the Sunday Times, private polling seen by Boris and his top aides showed Democratic candidate Joe Biden trouncing President Trump in this November’s US election (inviting the question: what attention have they been paying to the race before now?). According to the Times, ministers have been instructed to forge links with Biden and his team, with the Government effectively writing off a second term for Trump.
From his stint as Foreign Secretary to his premiership, Johnson has done his best to court the US president. According to former British Ambassador to Washington DC Kim Darroch, Johnson has invested so much time in his relationship with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, that he is the leader with the warmest relationship with the Trump family. Thrashing out a trade deal with the US was always held out as the post-Brexit prize in bilateral trade deals, and the Prime Minister clearly thought that he would never get a better chance to secure a deal than with Trump.
As if to emphasise this, a comment last month from Biden indicated that no US-UK trade deal could be tolerated, were the Good Friday Agreement to be a “casualty of Brexit”, and there remains a lingering frostiness from members of the Obama-Biden team towards Johnson, following the latter’s dismissal of “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire”. In reality, a Biden administration would have foreign policy priorities far ahead of a bilateral trade deal with the UK: re-entering the Paris Agreement on climate change, restoring diplomatic relations with Iran to tackle their nuclear programme, and rebalancing against the threat from Russia.
So what does this mean for Britain? A post-Brexit Britain was always going to need to build and strengthen alliances further afield. But without the trade access that the EU provided, the UK has to rely on “symbolic” trade deals, like the much heralded deal with Japan that boosts GDP by 0.07%. The so-called special relationship was meant to be an easy solution to Britain standing alone. The Trump era provided a brief glimpse of what this might look like, but in Trumpian fashion it is gilded and hollow: a relationship based on flattery, anti-EU bombast, and tea with the Queen.
Were Trump to depart the White House, US-EU ties will almost certainly take priority over US-UK ones. But without Trump, a British foreign policy towards the EU might have to be more pragmatic. Earlier this week, the UK acted in tandem with the EU to impose sanctions on Russian officials, following the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, showing a glimpse of how a future partnership can succeed. The end of year deadline for a Brexit deal will also likely be informed by which US candidate wins, and a safer approach to Northern Ireland is likelier with Biden in the Oval Office than with Trump.
Beyond Europe, Britain’s hosting of COP26 next year will also see a major boost from a Biden Presidency. With the current administration in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, a standoffish Trump will scupper any chance of a meaningful agreement in Glasgow, which will not be a good look for a post-Brexit “Global Britain” hosting its biggest international conference in decades. A Biden administration would not only be more likely to sign-up for robust targets themselves, they could also play a key role in convincing China to follow suit.
If the polls are to be believed, then Biden has as strong a shot at the White House as any candidate in recent history. The ‘special relationship’ is something of a fantasy, but bringing stability to Washington will benefit Britain much more in the long run, than a short-termist Johnson-Trump partnership.