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Boris Johnson would have to leave behind the Brexit tribe under a President Biden

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
13 October 2020

o you remember where you were when you heard that Donald Trump had become President of the United States? I do. I was sitting on Steve Hilton’s sofa in Silicon Valley. I didn’t want the referendum to end my friendships in the same way it had ended my political career. The phone went. Fox News wanted Steve to go on their national election show. He went off to the local studio — and his wife and I watched from their home as he explained to Americans that Trump was just like Brexit. They were, Steve said, part of the same political movement: people on a mission to “drain the swamp” of the experts, lobbyists, big businesses, bureaucrats and general do-gooders who had “failed” the communities they pretended to care for.

Trump had already drawn the parallel himself. Just after the referendum result the then presidential candidate said “they will soon be calling me Mr Brexit”. In the months after his prediction came good, the Brexiteers played up their links with the now president-elect. Remember Nigel Farage’s grin and the picture in front of the gold elevator? When Theresa May rushed to the Oval Office in the first week after the President’s inauguration, she came with a message: Brexit Britain could do business with Trump’s America. With Washington actively supporting our departure from the EU, Brussels — we were told — would have to cut us a deal fast. While far from being at the back of the queue for a trade agreement with the US, as Barack Obama had “foolishly” predicted, now we would be at the very front.

Four years later, we’re still trying to get the EU to agree a deal and there’s no American trade pact in sight. Now Downing Street, we hear, is beginning to think about the consequences of a President Joe Biden. Of course, the election isn’t over and Trump could pull off another upset. But our ministers have been told to go and meet some Democrats. Brexiteers are now even suggesting that a Biden victory is what they secretly pray for. Yeah, right.

There’s no doubt a President Biden would talk of our Special Relationship. He’s spent a lifetime dealing with international affairs, and I know from my own encounters with him that he values the alliance with the UK and whoever leads it. But he’s a politician — and politicians don’t easily forget their tribes. The Brexiteers aren’t in his tribe. If Biden wins, we’re about to find out what that means.

Politicians don’t forget their tribes, and Brexiteers aren’t in Biden’s. If he wins, we’ll find out what that means

First, this would be the first Democrat President in my lifetime who starts with a rolodex of all the world leaders he knows. Unlike Carter, Clinton and Obama, Biden hasn’t emerged as some unknown governor or junior senator. He’s spent almost two decades as either Vice President or Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Britons he knows were in the New Labour and Coalition governments. He counts continental European leaders as among his closest allies, and the European Union as the key strategic partner for the US in the western hemisphere. Put it this way, Macron and Merkel will be very welcome in the Rose Garden.

Joe Biden  / AP

Second, a Biden administration is likely to put healing trade relations with the Europeans above a new trade deal with the UK. Speaker Pelosi signalled whose side Democrats will be on when she said the row about Britain breaking its international treaty obligations over Northern Ireland meant there was “absolutely no chance” of a trade deal passing Congress. Now she’s thrown in the issue of our food and pharmaceutical drug standards. If we’re not at the back of the queue, we’re nowhere near the front.

Finally, Joe Biden is steeped in the progressive politics of the Left. Conservative nationalists are not his friends. If you want a straw that tells you which way the wind is blowing, then look at the tweet this weekend from Obama’s former deputy national security adviser: “I’m old enough to remember when Boris Johnson said Obama opposed Brexit because he was Kenyan.” Ouch.

I am sure the relations between our Prime Minister and a President Biden would be very cordial, even friendly. But you can be equally sure that Sir Keir Starmer will get his “prime minister in waiting” welcome at the White House — and for longer than the 15 minutes Ronald Reagan granted to Neil Kinnock.

None of these features of a Biden administration are insurmountable obstacles for this British government. It’s true that in secret many of them yearn to deal with a more predictable and dependable American ally. But when Boris Johnson turns up in Joe Biden’s Rose Garden, he’s going to have to leave behind the tribe that got him there.