Boris Johnson faces bumpy path back to respectability in the White House

Joe Biden has called UK PM a Trump clone, and his Irish links make Brexit a sensitive subject

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at the UN general assembly in September 2019. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at the UN general assembly in September 2019. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 23.36 EST

Tommy Vietor, a feisty former spokesman for Barack Obama, made a little news last weekend by describing Boris Johnson as a “shapeshifting creep”. It added fuel to the fire of those who say the UK prime minister is likely to struggle to charm himself into Joe Biden’s inner circle, leaving a shunned UK bobbing uneasily in the mid-Atlantic

The global reaction to his remark, Vietor said, was a timely reminder that dumb tweets by washed-up ex-Obama staffers – his own description – can carry greater significance now that Obama’s vice-president is set to move into the White House.

“I did not intend to suggest I spoke for Joe Biden, I don’t, but I stand by every word,” he said. “We will never forget his racist words about Barack Obama,” he added, citing Johnson’s claim that Obama had a Churchill statue removed from the White House because he had a Kenyan ancestral hangup about British colonialism.

The episode left open the question of to what extent the Biden White House regards Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump – Biden’s assessment last year – and whether it will matter.

Ben Rhodes, a former Obama national security adviser and now a co-host with Vietor of the Pod Save the World podcast, took a more analytical approach to Johnson’s plight. “At the end of the day, I actually do not think most of the incoming Biden people – certainly Joe Biden – are going to be looking for revenge on Johnson,” he said.

However, he added that Johnson did face a problem. “In these Brexit negotiations, the most sensitive issue is Northern Ireland. The Democratic party, and Joe Biden especially, cares a lot about the Northern Ireland accords. Donald Trump could not care less about it, and he was a political ally of Johnson and a huge supporter of Brexit. Johnson is now going to have a US administration that will looking negatively at any efforts to mess around with the Northern Ireland status, so his biggest job [negotiating Brexit] just got harder.”

Rhodes said Johnson’s wider challenge was that he is viewed as part of a trend. “Everybody equated Brexit and Trump as one trend, and Joe Biden’s election seems to suggest that the political winds in the west, and globally, hopefully, are shifting against this brand of thuggish rightwing nationalist populism, and that could be problem for him.

“If Trump had won, there would have been a sense [that] ‘no, no, the equilibrium has shifted and the future is with these guys like Johnson, Trump, Viktor Orbán and [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’.”

An ex-Obama staffer lumping Johnson along with Erdoğan might seem bizarre, but it also reveals how much ground the prime minister has to make up. It was illustrated when Johnson was caught in a dilemma as his great ally refused to concede defeat. Johnson did not want to desert Trump, but nor could he afford to be behind other leaders in the scramble to congratulate Biden on the clear fact of his victory. In the end, the Foreign Office congratulated Biden but added a reference to “some processes playing out” – a euphemism for Trump’s fruitless quest for evidence of a stolen election.

The episode encapsulated Johnson’s awkward metamorphosis. The dog-whistling nativist urgently needed to be replaced by a green multilateralist. Both personas coexist inside Johnson, but faced by Biden, one side urgently needed more foreground. The chaotic staff war inside Downing Street may help Johnson press this particular reset button and turn a new leaf.

For many Democrats it was noticeable that immediately after the 2016 election result, Johnson went the extra mile to ingratiate himself with Trump’s advisers. It was on a visit to Trump Tower in New York in January 2017, before the inauguration, that Johnson – then foreign secretary – started his journey to becoming personal friends with Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and, most controversially, Steve Miller, the combative architect of Trump’s immigration policies. Phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged. Johnson was prevented from meeting Trump himself partly because Theresa May did not trust him.

Boris Johnson reaches out to shake hands with Donald Trump
Boris Johnson reaches out to shake hands with Donald Trump at a Nato leaders’ meeting in December 2019. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

Miller was evangelical about Trump, describing him as “a political genius that had tapped into something magical in this country”. If Johnson thought this baloney, he did not say so. Some UK diplomats thought it high-risk that Johnson went so all in.

“At embassy parties and meetings we were fawning,” one former diplomat said, “yet it was obvious from the start that Trump was not going to be traditional Republican president, and we should have been more cautious before getting so close.”

Sir Kim Darroch, a former UK ambassador to Washington, observed how “fascinated” Johnson seemed by Trump. He was particularly intrigued, Darroch said, by Trump’s use of language. “The limited vocabulary, the simplicity of the messaging, the disdain for political correctness, the sometimes incendiary imagery, and the at best intermittent relationship with facts and the truth,” he wrote in his autobiography.

It is of course the duty of any British foreign secretary to be as close to the US administration as possible, and the Foreign Office also felt under pressure to marginalise Nigel Farage, who at that point was causing mayhem by touting himself as Trump’s true friend in Brexit Britain.

But as time wore on and Trump revealed his unsuitability for public office and his disdain for America’s old allies, Johnson did not distance himself. The fawning only grew worse. US notes of a meeting between Johnson and the US ambassador to the UK in August 2017 show Johnson saying that Trump was doing “fantastic stuff” on foreign policy issues such as China, Syria and North Korea.

Before Trump’s 2019 state visit, Johnson told Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, that the president was increasingly popular in the UK. Pompeo was quoted as responding: “We’ll put him on a street corner of Piccadilly. He can shake hands with people. That would be great.” Johnson said: “That would be crazy.”

This flattery worked as Trump took Johnson under his wing, regarding him as a fellow disruptive force willing to break up the EU protection racket, unlike the over-cautious May. Indeed, the more he cooled on May, the more he warmed to the ebullient Johnson. Quite whether Bannon or Miller truly thought Johnson was “one of them” is not clear. John Bolton for one claimed Johnson had the upper hand. Trump’s former national security adviser said: “I think he’s got a good sense of humour and I had the sense that behind those twinkling eyes he was playing Trump like a fiddle.”

Either way, it is hard also to underestimate how across the board the Washington foreign policy elite, led by Biden, are on record as describing Brexit – for which Johnson takes prime responsibility – as a historic error and part of a populist trend that has only benefited the enemies of the west.

Hillary Clinton said Brexit “may go down as one of the greatest and most unnecessary self-inflicted wounds in modern history”. A former under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, said recently: “Brexit is going to weaken the UK and diminish its standing in the world, and I say that as a friend of the UK.”

Tom Donilon, tipped for Biden’s state department, warned at the time of the 2016 referendum that leaving the EU was going to make the UK less powerful, weaker and more isolated, and the only beneficiary was Vladimir Putin.

Tony Blinken, Obama’s chief foreign policy adviser, described the Brexit saga thus: “This is not the dog that caught the car. This is the dog that caught the car, then the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog. So many young Brits having the rug pulled out under them.” Julianne Smith, a national security adviser to Biden in Obama’s second term, said Brexit was a crushing blow to European unity and jeopardised the special relationship.

Joe Biden in Ireland in June 2016
Joe Biden in Ireland in June 2016. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

How Johnson handles the Brexit endgame will be critical to his path back to respectability in the White House. Some say Biden, who has the strongest links to Ireland of any president since JFK, would intervene only if the departure destabilises peace on the island of Ireland. Dublin views his commitment as an ace card in Brexit talks. Biden is on first-name terms with leading Irish politicians and turned the sod on a hospice in County Mayo that has a plaque honouring his late son, Beau. He discussed Gaelic football in an early phone call with the taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

“Ireland is in a very comfortable position with the new administration,” said Bobby McDonagh, Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009 to 2013. “Biden’s Irishness is significant.”

British officials and Biden advisers admit that if the internal market bill goes forward in any form that creates a border between the two Irelands, the issue will dominate US-UK relations for the first months, if not year, of the Biden administration. But if a deal is struck with the EU, there is a good chance for the US-UK relationship to improve quickly, in part because Britain has been fortunate with its timing. It will preside over the UN security council in February, chair the G7 and host the Cop26 climate conference later in the year. Johnson’s call for assembling a group of 10 major democracies, D10, as a new international forum, could also merge with Biden’s stated intention to convene a summit of the world’s democracies.

“The UK has, for its own reasons, stumbled into initiatives which seem to run parallel to some of the thinking in the Biden team, which is good,” said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. “Look, I hated Brexit, but I don’t wish the UK ill, for God’s sakes. We’ve got to make the most of it.”

The prospects for a US-UK free trade agreement (FTA) in the near term, however, now look bleak. The negotiations were facing serious obstacles, such as agricultural goods, animal welfare and digital taxation, and are now on the backburner until the new administration comes in.

Biden has made clear that trade deals will not be a priority as he wrestles with an out-of-control pandemic and its economic consequences. UK negotiators are under no illusions that the sticking points will get any easier.

I think those are difficult full stop. It’s difficult no matter who is in the White House, especially as it will be difficult with Congress,” said a source close to the discussions.

A trade deal with the US has for Brexiters developed a symbolic status way beyond its actual value to either country. Biden will be less bothered by that than by Johnson’s broader journey, and whether on issues such as China, climate change, Iran, global health and European security, the British have something to contribute.

The adults are back in the room and it is up to Johnson to show, somewhat late in life, whether he has the maturity to join them.