All the PM’s eggs are in one basket – namely the one held by the US president. He is a supplicant with little influence
The admission by the UK and US that there is little prospect of a trade deal between them anytime soon is a severe setback for Boris Johnson; it was the big prize he and fellow Brexiteers promised during and since the 2016 MEG referendum.
De 2019 Tory manifesto said the drive for post-Brexit trade deals would be “starting with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.” As foreign secretary, Johnson claimed in 2017 that “we are first in line to do a great free trade deal with the US.” Now Barack Obama’s pre-referendum intervention, which infuriated Johnson at the time, has come true: the UK is at the back of the queue.
Negotiations while Donald Trump was president picked the low hanging fruit but did not resolve tricky issues like agriculture. It’s been an open secret in Whitehall for months that talks with the Biden administration are going nowhere; such deals are not a priority for a president with a huge domestic agenda. The Johnson and Biden governments have a very different approach to trade; I’m told the UK was surprised when the US demanded an agreement include protections for workers’ rights. “We are having to learn some new language,” one UK official admitted.
Biden’s ability to fast-track a deal through Congress expired in July and US officials do not expect any progress before the midterm elections in November 2022. That is why on his current trip to America, Johnson could not guarantee an agreement by the next UK general election. The prime minister clung desperately to minor changes such as reducing tariffs on Scotch whisky and lifting a ban on British beef as evidence of a “massive improvement” in trade. Yet a deal was not even mentioned in the White House’s terse readout of the president’s 90-minute meeting with Johnson last night. It ran to 158 words, while the Downing Street version threw in the kitchen sink and managed 561 words, including the wishful thinking that “the leaders agreed to continue working towards a future full free trade agreement.”
While that remains the UK’s primary goal, the government is trying to cover its embarrassment by exploring other avenues. One idea is to try to gatecrash the existing trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico but that is unlikely to happen – it is not open to new members – and even if it did, it would be on their rather than UK terms. A more realistic goal is to join the CPTPP trans-Pacific partnership but that would probably take years and Trump pulled America out of it, so it would not necessarily provide a backdoor route to a US deal.
Although Biden played down the link between a US-UK agreement and Northern Ireland, he also issued a barely-coded warning to Johnson not to walk away from the protocol designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, which the UK has not ruled out as it tries to rewrite a deal only nine months after it took effect. Suspending the protocol would clearly cause a huge rift with Biden, something Johnson cannot afford.
The prime minister did have some good news to trumpet on his trip to New York and Washington. But his “gains” – Biden’s doubling of US climate finance to developing countries, a vital ingredient for a successful Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November, and lifting America’s travel ban on British citizens – were decisions made in US interests. The travel announcement, which Johnson was not expecting so soon, covered the UK and the EU and was an attempt to repair relations damaged by the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That disastrous episode was a reminder that despite the two leaders’ warm words last night, the US-UK relationship is very much on Biden’s terms. Johnson was fortunate that events in Kabul did not dominate his White House discussions. Despite the fury of British ministers at Biden’s actions and the lack of consultation with America’s allies, Johnson praised the US evacuation operation, judging there was no point in looking back in anger.
Luckily for Johnson, last week’s announcement of the Aukus security pact between the US, Australia and UK moved the media spotlight on from Afghanistan. It was the first tangible sign that “global Britain” and the tilt to the Indo-Pacific set out in the foreign and defence policy review in March are more than mere rhetoric.
derimot, the Aukus agreement has alienated France, a natural UK ally on security, and marks another step away by the UK from sensible co-operation with its European neighbours. All Johnson’s eggs are in Biden’s basket; he is a supplicant with little influence, even though Afghanistan exposed the huge risks of such a strategy.