Boris Johnson stood to please no one by extending his hearty congratulations to Joe Biden for his election victory, later referring to Donald Trump as “the previous president” in a speech to Parliament. And yet, what else was he supposed to do?
It is well known that the Democratic Party is more Europhilic than it is Anglophilic. The Obama-Biden administration was skeptical of the idea of Brexit to begin with. Obama famously warned that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” in terms of a U.S. trade deal, should it actually attempt to leave the European Union. In a post-Brexit world, a trade deal with the United States is of far greater consequence to Britain than it is to America. Johnson needs Biden to cooperate — but the dependency is not mutual for Biden.
Johnson has reason to be concerned that there may be personal, as well as political, hostility emanating from the incoming president. Biden has described Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump. Perhaps this helps explain why Johnson, during his 20-minute phone call with Biden, went to great pains to emphasize his liberal bona fides. He invited Biden to the UK’s COP26 conference on climate change in 2021, and even gave Biden’s campaign slogan a try, saying that he is “looking forward to strengthening the partnership between our countries” and “building back better.” A senior official in Johnson’s government told CNN that there’s “relief on our side that we are going to be dealing with someone more consistent and reliable.” Which sounds like a very strategic leak.
But will this strategy work? Tommy Vietor, a former Obama-administration spokesperson, wrote on Twitter that Johnson was a “shapeshifting creep” who should never be forgiven for his “racist comments” and “slavish devotion to Trump.” Tyson Barker, a former State Department official during the Obama-Biden years, told CNN that “there is a distaste for Boris Johnson’s populism and his willingness to lie. That might irk people at lower levels of a Biden administration.” Biden doesn’t seem like the sort to hold a grudge, but his approach will likely depend on who has his ear.
To further complicate matters, Biden identifies strongly with his Irish heritage. This may turn out to be a problem for Johnson, whose Internal Market Bill would break international law and, critics say, erect a hard border. This claim has been debunked. Still, Biden, a creature of the ’70s and ’80s, strongly associates his ancestors’ homeland with the sectarian violence of that era and the hard struggle for peace. That’s why, in September, he said “we can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. . . . Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
Johnson in PMQs (the Prime Minister’s Questions session) “strongly agreed on the need for once again the UK and the US to stand together to stick up for our values around the world.” But even here, there may be significant differences. During the vice-presidential debates, Mike Pence criticized the Obama-Biden administration’s handling of the case of Kayla Mueller, a Christian aid worker killed in 2015 by members of the Islamic State in Syria. “Her family says, with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today,” Pence said. Kayla Mueller’s murderers, it turned out, were British-born jihadis, and Attorney General Bill Barr, like Jeff Sessions before him, worked closely with authorities in the Johnson government to ensure they were brought to the U.S. to face justice. The Muellers are not the only family of murdered Americans to fear that a Biden administration would be less decisive.
Another high-profile diplomatic incident has come to light in recent months. In August 2019, Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American intelligence agent stationed in Britain, killed a 19-year-old motorcyclist, Harry Dunn, by allegedly driving on the wrong side of the road. Though charged with “causing death by dangerous driving,” Sacoolas left the country, claiming diplomatic immunity. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. State Department denied an extradition request, calling its decision “final.” Last October, Trump tried to play peacemaker by inviting Dunn’s parents to the White House; he then tried to persuade them to meet with Sacoolas, who, unbeknownst to them, was waiting in the adjoining room. They declined the offer to meet with her and left, complaining that they had been “ambushed.”
Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles, said that the coming Biden administration gives her “renewed hope.” In light of Biden’s experience of losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, she believes he will have a “deeper understanding” of her quest for justice. Johnson said he would “support anything” that would lead to justice for the family or, more precisely, that would suit the person who happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.
Johnson has said that a Biden administration will mark a “return to the kind of business we are used to doing together.” If, by that, he means business that will win him favor with the liberal globalists, to whom he is now desperately trying to appeal, then he will likely fail.