oris is a terrific guy – you really know that – he’s a terrific guy,” the US president declared on a UK radio station just two days after MPs voted to hold the first winter general election since 1923. No stranger to setting fire to the international rules of diplomacy and then pouring petrol over them, Donald Trump went on to insist Jeremy Corbyn would be “so bad for your country” and take Britain to “such bad places”.
With American voters heading to the polls in just nine days’ time, there will be no similar endorsement or public praise from Boris Johnson of his transatlantic ally. Instead, the prime minister will remain silent, as diplomats in Washington, through the usual backchannels, attempt to forge new ties with the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while the world waits with bated breath for the results of one of the most consequential elections in recent history.
Whether the incumbent, who defied expectations in 2016 to defeat Hillary Clinton, or Biden, the former vice president in Barack Obama’s administration, emerge triumphant in November’s vote, either will have profound ramifications for Johnson’s government and the future of the UK-US “special relationship” which has weathered the four-year storm of Trump’s erratic and unpredictable presidency.
The Independent has spoken to former diplomats and ministers who were intimately involved in the relationship alongside MPs about what the next four years could hold in store for relations between Downing Street and the White House.
If Trump confounds expectations once again and secures a second term, some believe there will be a sigh of relief from Downing Street – at least in the short term. Naturally, the UK has existing ties to the current administration and Johnson already has a personal relationship with the US president that, on the surface, appears considerably closer to the one enjoyed by his predecessor, Theresa May.
While the British government has often found itself isolated during the protracted and divisive struggle to leave the European Union, the US president has consistently been one of the country’s most reliable allies on the world stage when it comes to extolling the virtues of Brexit and offering comforting rhetoric about the ability of an independent UK to strike a rapid free trade deal with America.
The self-declared “Mr Brexit” is even fond of telling anyone who will listen the false story that he predicted the outcome of the historic decision to leave the EU the day before the referendum while visiting his Turnberry golf course in Scotland. In fact, his helicopter touched down on the luxury resort on 24 June 2016 as he welcomed the result as a “great” and “fantastic thing”.
Speaking ahead of Johnson’s elections as Conservative leader professor John Bew – now a foreign policy adviser at No 10 – said he believed Trump was “more willing to pay lip service to the special relationship” than many other relationships or institutions during his presidency.
“If you think about Nato, if you think about the relationship with Germany, which of course is a crucial relationship with the United States historically, his role in those relationships or discussing those types of things has been provocateur and dismissive and destructive of them,” he said. “It’s America First, but there are second and third relationships in that as well and some of them are deteriorating and some of them are just about withstanding the storm.”
According to the American publication The Hill, Biden himself referred to Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of the US president just hours after the Conservatives’ landslide victory in the December election. But Christopher Meyer, the UK ambassador the US between 1997 and 2003, disagrees. “This view – Johnson and Trump joined at the hip – seems to me based purely on the fact they have hair more or less the same colour. When you’re actually looking at the policies, they differ profoundly,” he said.
“It’s a profound mistake because I cannot think of anyone as temperamentally and politically different than Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson is a classic centre-right politician, and doesn’t share any of the weird prejudices and narcissistic tendencies that Trump has. Boris is a man of very strong personality and you either like him or you don’t, but he’s not like Trump at all. I think it’s entirely fallacious that Boris Johnson is a mini-Trump, not at all, not at all.”
While some believe No 10 would prefer a Trump victory given the existing personal relationship between the pair, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former defence and foreign secretary under John Major’s premiership, disagreed. “The fascinating thing is how little they’ve agreed on,” he said.
“Britain’s foreign policy for 50 years had two pillars: our membership with the European Union and forming alliances on issues with European colleagues, with all the weight of the EU, and second, the relationship with the United States. As we have chosen to leave the EU, we will still have various European relationships, but they will be informal, they’ll take time to develop and they certainly won’t be institutionalised in the same way.
“Logically, this means we will have to try and build on our American relationship, or the Commonwealth and various other people. But of all the various people around the world the Americans would obviously be the most important. In theory, you would have thought a Trump-Johnson relationship is the obvious candidate in the short and medium terms. They like each other, in personal terms they seem to get on with each other, but in policy terms there’s very little in common.”
Pointing to the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal – both of which were abandoned by President Trump – Rifkind said the UK has often been on “opposite sides” of the debate on crucial foreign policy issues.
Even during the Covid-19 crisis differences have been stark. While Trump, who has overseen a catastrophic handling of the pandemic and one of the world’s highest death tolls, has publicly denounced the World Health Organisation, the British government has vowed to increase its funding to the international body by millions. “Not only do we not agree with Trump [on WHO], but the government increases its contribution, you can’t get much more opposite than that at this particular moment,” Sir Malcolm added.
Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington between 2007 and 2012, said under the current government there’s “no doubt I think a Trump victory would seem the easier path” for the country in the short term. “You’ve got a president who’s heavily invested in Brexit, who has a good personal relationship with our prime minister, and others within government, and commitment to a free trade deal and so on,” he said.
“I think the public perception of closeness between Trump and Johnson will be a factor, in a sense a sigh of relief, as there often is when an incumbent wins.”
However, Sheinwald believes the reality of a Trump victory could be a “wake-up call” for the UK, especially if the government decides to abandon trade talks with the EU, as No 10 has threatened in recent days amid an impasse with negotiators in Brussels. The former top diplomat in Washington said Trump’s administration “would really try to use its advantage and be very domineering in its relationship with the UK”. A flavour of this was on display earlier this year over the contentious decision to allow the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei a role in developing Britain’s 5G networks. Trump was reported to have vented “apoplectic” fury with the prime minister over the decision in a phone call in February. Months later, Johnson announced a major U-turn, banning UK operators from purchasing any of the company’s equipment after the end of this year.
“They [the US] just didn’t give up and didn’t take no for an answer, even when it was a half-no and half-yes at the beginning of the year,” Sir Nigel added. “I think you’ll see more of that behaviour, which is very much Trump’s personal behaviour, as time went on, despite his theme park type regard for the UK and personal liking for Boris Johnson.
“There is a flip side, you could imagine, just about imagine, even President Trump feeling the warm glow of a second victory. It would be a remarkable victory if he got it, you could see the pressure being off to some degree. But I think it’s a little bit unlikely, I think the only safe assumption for an observer like the UK would be to assume it would be pretty much the same, the same erratic, oscillated behaviour and possibly getting worse.”
Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, said that UK has a critical role in attempts to persuade the global superpower and that while she believed Johnson and Trump had a “real” relationship, the government “seem completely unwilling to use or exert any pressure on the United States at all”.
“That may be because of issues around a free trade deal, wanting to sign up to a deal with the United States,” she added. “I think what all this illustrates is the folly of the approach the government has taken over recent years. They’ve isolated us close to home, they’ve isolated us further afield and by trashing our relationship with our European friends and allies they’ve managed to do real damage to our standing in the world and our ability to influence some of the world’s global superpowers. To be really blunt about it, the UK is desperately short of friends at the moment when we most need them.”
But whatever the result of the election, Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs the foreign affair select committee, emphasised that the UK-US relationship is “multi-layered”, beyond the “surface layer” of relations between No 10 and the White House, which itself fluctuates between the holders of each office.
“The reality is the US-UK relationship is much deeper than that. Look, there are people like me who have served in combat alongside members of Congress and Senate. That creates a very, very deep relationship the like of which we don’t share with many other countries. It’s not just about the politics, it’s actually the popular link, the link between people is much stronger.”
British voters are already overwhelmingly hostile to the Trump brand, but how they will respond to Biden, a figure less well known, also remains to be seen. According to polling for The Independent by BMG, a majority (54 per cent) believe a second term for Trump would have a negative impact on the UK’s relationship with the US. On critical issues such as climate change and the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, just 14 per cent on both counts said the incumbent would have a positive impact.
For Biden, only 12 per cent said his election to the White House would have a negative impact on the historic relationship, compared with 36 per cent who suggested he would have a positive impact. On climate change and the response to Covid-19, voters are also more optimistic: 39 and 40 per cent of respondents believed he would have a positive impact.
Rob Struthers, the head of polling at BMG, said: “While these numbers by no means suggest there are overwhelming levels of admiration in the UK for Joe Biden, they do suggest he is the British public’s clear preference when it comes to dealing with many key challenges – not that this itself will matter when votes are counted on 3 November.”
Nandy, who said it was a “fairly open secret” who she would vote for if she was a US citizen, insisted a Biden victory would be a “real game changer” for relations with the US. “I think that the situation for the world in many ways becomes more straightforward with a Biden administration,” the Labour frontbencher claimed.
“He’s signalled that he would continue to participate in the World Health Organisation, likely to take the US back into the Paris agreement. But there is a tension for the UK which is potentially very present under a Biden administration, which is having to come out of the European Union. There are sections of the Democratic Party that see Britain as having absented itself on the world stage. As far as they look to Europe for partnership, they look largely to France and Germany as critical players within the EU.”
Nandy also highlighted the row over the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which seeks to override the EU withdrawal agreement, as a source of tension between the Democrats and the Johnson’s government. Echoing concerns of Democrats, including the House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Biden, an Irish-American, warned last month he will not allow peace in Northern Ireland to become a “casualty of Brexit”. In an extraordinary intervention, he posted on his Twitter account: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
No 10 has insisted it will not jeopardise the agreement, but if the UK fails to secure a trade deal with the EU before the end of the transition period, it could result in a frosty start between No 10 and a Biden administration. Unlike President Trump, the former vice president, who has spoken favourably of the “special relationship” has been critical of the Brexit referendum, suggesting it diminishes the United States’ influence in Europe. “Had I been a Member of Parliament, had I been a British citizen, I would have voted against leaving,” he said at a 2018 event at the Chatham House think tank in central London.
Initially, Johnson will have a couple of hurdles to overcome if Biden is elected president next month. Former ambassador Sheinwald said the Democratic nominee is “bound to feel some suspicion” at the way in which the prime minister has “vaunted” his personal relationship with Trump. “There’s going to be initially at least some sort of suspicion and questioning,” he said.
“I hesitate to say this, but there are some Obama people in a Biden administration and they remember some of the things that the current prime minister said about Obama, whether as a newspaper columnist or whether it was mayor of London,” he told an event hosted by the Cheltenham Literature Festival earlier this month. “I promise you there is still some resentment and unhappiness over that. I’m not sure there will be, you know, quite the warm, welcoming embrace from Biden for Boris Johnson prime minister, as it would be from Donald Trump for Boris Johnson prime minister. I think there will be some question marks if Biden wins.”
The former ambassador was referring to an incident in 2016 when the then mayor of London was accused of dog-whistle racism for suggesting the former president’s attitude towards Britain might be based on his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. In a column for The Sun, coinciding with Obama’s high-profile visit to the UK during the EU referendum, Johnson recounted a story of a bust of wartime leader Winston Churchill purportedly being removed from the White House Oval Office. “Some say it was a snub to Britain,” he wrote.
Appearing to corroborate Darroch’s thesis, the former president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, posted on social media earlier this month in response to a report suggesting a panicking No 10 was urging ministers to form links with Biden’s team: “I’m old enough to remember when Boris Johnson said Obama opposed Brexit because he was Kenyan.”
Another hurdle Johnson will undoubtedly be faced with in the first weeks of a Biden administration is who will be the first European leader through the doors of the Oval Office in the days after the new president’s inauguration. It was described as a diplomatic victory when Theresa May received the first invitation to Washington after Trump’s shock election victory, during which the pair pledged their commitment to the “special relationship”. The trip, however, did backfire on May’s return to the UK, via Turkey, when President Trump announced a ban on refugees and entry to the US for seven Muslim-majority nations.
An issue raised by former ministers and ambassadors is the likelihood of a Biden administration to lean more on relationships between other European countries – given the UK’s decision to leave the bloc – through the German chancellor Angela Merkel, until she leaves office in 2021, and the French president Emmanuel Macron. Who Biden turns to first with an invitation to the White House could provide a decent indication of his administration’s priorities. “I think those games will be played, no doubt,” said Sheinwald.
Despite the potential or any initial frosty receptions in the initial phase of a Johnson-Biden relationship, however, Rifkind believes there will be a “huge sigh of relief” for many in No 10 if the Democratic nominee wins “clearly” without weeks of wrangling over the result.
“I think there will be a relief, not because they’ll expect to have everything cosy – Biden will have his own views,” he said. “The moment Biden wins, if he does win, there is no danger of the Nato alliance collapsing, none whatsoever. But if Trump gets another term, Trump could do enormous damage to Nato over the next four years.”
On how Johnson and Biden will get along, Rifkind recalled a 1984 meeting between the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher: “As between any heads of government – not just British and American – there either is or isn’t a personal chemistry. Who could have predicted that Thatcher and Gorbachev would have got on? The Iron Lady and someone then who was still a convinced communist and the leader of the Soviet Union?”
Rifkind, who was present at Chequers when the two leaders met, added: “And yet, forget the policy, they didn’t agree on a single thing. What was extraordinary was there was an immediate personal chemistry between the two of them. They liked each other, they were similar not in terms of opinions but in terms of credible curiosity for what made the other tick and the kind of society they came from, and they very slowly, but definitely, began to trust each other. To trust each other you don’t need to agree with them. Trust means you believe they are saying what they mean – if they promise something, they will deliver.”