The U.S. and U.K. have always moved together in a kind of political lockstep. It was that way with Reagan and Thatcher, Blair and Clinton, then with Blair and Bush, and also with Obama and Cameron. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump got on fairly well — but how about Johnson and Biden?
It will be an awkward change for Johnson. He and Trump were a good match. Both were natural campaigners, more at home with the crowd than with policy detail. Johnson fought the Brexit campaign on the promise that Britain would “Take Back Control” from Brussels. It was a line that rhymed closely with Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” Both suggested nations heading in the wrong direction and promised an imminent return to the righteous path. Both messages proved highly effective.
Alert to this similarity, Trump described his British counterpart as “Britain Trump,” a moniker that Johnson welcomed. But buddying-up with Trump had an ulterior significance for Johnson. A good relationship was crucial for Britain’s chances of brokering a favorable post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. Around half of Britain’s exports currently go into the European Union, and as yet there is no agreement with Brussels on what happens to those goods when Britain’s trade arrangements with the EU expire at the end of the year. Good relations with Trump allowed Johnson to hold up the U.S. as the answer to this looming economic threat and helped to shape Johnson’s populist, Trump-lite pose.
But Biden’s victory has put an end to all that. Johnson’s political character will have to change, and the first signs of a shift came in the message of congratulation he sent to Biden: “I look forward to working closely together on our shared priorities, from climate change to trade and security.” The mention of climate change was new. Johnson never raised the subject with Trump, knowing it wasn’t (to put it mildly) a priority. The president-elect has already elicited a change of tack from the prime minister.
This moment of change coincides with ructions inside Johnson’s closest circle of advisers. Late in the summer, the prime minister decided to create the position of an official press secretary, who would hold a daily televised press conference. Until now, British governments have allowed messages to filter out into the public realm via an inner circle of political correspondents known as “the Lobby.” During Johnson’s leadership, the Lobby has become a hotbed of government leaks, secret briefings, and political backstabbing. (Full disclosure — I am a former Lobby journalist). The situation has become so bad that even the news of a second COVID lockdown was leaked to the press. Part of the motivation for creating the post of press secretary was to cut out the morass of the Lobby, allowing government to communicate in a more controlled manner.
The problem for Johnson was that there were senior people in his operation who liked doing business in this leaky, off-the-record way, and who didn’t want the new press secretary, correctly seeing this as an attempt to clip their wings. The two aides most at threat were Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and Downing Street’s head of communications, Lee Cain. After a brutal few days of political infighting, the situation descended into an appalling mess, which ended with both men being sacked.
What looked like a straightforward internal staff issue was in fact of deep significance. Cummings and Cain were closely associated with the Brexit campaign and had pushed Johnson in a more populist direction. The influence they exerted over the prime minister did not endear them to traditional Conservatives, who saw them as troublemakers and often for good reason. Lee Cain, for example, was at one time an activist for the Labour Party. He is also from what might be called the more rough-and-tumble end of British political life. During the 2010 general election, for example, he dressed up as a chicken and followed David Cameron around on the campaign trail, in a stunt intended to humiliate the then–prime minister. On one occasion, he had to be escorted away by police, still in costume, as Cameron and his wife looked on.
Cain will not be missed. One adviser in Downing Street told the Times Radio journalist Tom Newton Dunn that “literally no one in here is mourning Lee this morning. A rude, needlessly abrasive, insecure clown with no brain for govt, who crashed Boris’s comms into the ground before flouncing off in a huff without an apology.” Dominic Cummings’s departure will also be welcomed. His enormous influence over the prime minister was resented by traditional Conservatives, but perhaps more significantly by Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Symonds, a former political adviser, is known to be voluble and passionate in her opinions. She has often urged Johnson to adopt more-green policies, which are anathema to Cummings, who had no time for environmentalism. But Cummings has gone now, sacked for, among other things, briefing against Symonds. From here on, government in Britain will rely less on the instincts of unelected officials like Cummings. This increases the potential not only for (admittedly unelected) Symonds but also for cabinet members and senior members of Parliament to exert influence.
It’s an irony that the arrival of a Democrat in the White House should coincide with the British prime minister’s decision to move to a more cautious, small-c conservative form of government. It is also remarkable that this turn might be met with approval by the new Democratic president-elect. If Johnson can make this shift and establish good relations with Biden, then he will have done a good deal to shake off his Trump-lite image, one that will do him no harm at all with the incoming administration.
But will it be enough to get Johnson a U.S. trade deal? It was back in 2017 that Liam Fox, the international-trade secretary at the time, first arrived in the U.S. to begin trade talks with U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer. But in all that time, the negotiations have yielded nothing — and why would they? Britain cannot realistically expect to forge trade deals of any substance with the U.S. while its relations with the EU remain unresolved. Four years have gone by since the Brexit vote, and there’s still no sign of a deal with Brussels, or of any progress at all. In recent weeks, negotiations have soured so badly that Sir David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, was rumored to be on the verge of resignation.
Biden brings a further layer of complexity to Britain’s Brexit challenge. Unlike Trump, he is broadly sympathetic toward the EU. He’s also proud of his Irish descent, and that puts the president-elect right at the center of the thorniest problem of them all, which is what Brexit means for Ireland. Brexit risks the return of a physical border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic. Part of the genius of the Good Friday Agreement was that, while allowing Northern Ireland to stay part of Britain, it removed all signs of a border between north and south. That way the loyalists could imagine themselves to be Brits while the nationalists could see themselves as living in a united Ireland.
Johnson’s failure to secure a post-Brexit deal with the EU (at least at the time of writing) jeopardizes that carefully struck balance, and Biden has made his view of this very clear. In a tweet in September, he wrote: “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 US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.” The message is clear — fix Brexit, don’t mess up Ireland, then we’ll talk trade.
Johnson was Trump’s man in Europe. Could he ever play the same role for Biden? Perhaps. After all, Johnson has the great advantage of not really believing in anything, which makes him very adaptable. Biden’s victory could make compromise with the EU seem more appealing for Johnson, especially now that his more extreme advisers have left Downing Street.
Sections of the Conservative Party would regard any compromise with Brussels as a betrayal. But the British electorate is suffering from political fatigue. The last five years have been a frantic dash from one self-induced crisis to the next. Britain had a general election in 2015, the Brexit vote in 2016, another general election in 2017, and then another general election in 2019, and now the final Brexit deadline is approaching at the end of this pandemic year — the whole thing has felt like government by whirlwind. It has to stop eventually, and the mere fact of Biden’s victory could help to bring a conclusion.
Johnson’s time as a populist has come to an end. That may help to resolve his immediate political problems (although a new, ambitious climate plan announced on Wednesday may take him into dangerous territory with some of his base) and endear him to the president-elect. But when the next election comes around, the people who voted for Brexit and who gave him a landslide victory in 2019 may not be so forgiving.