Remember back in 2016 when Barack Obama said that, if we voted for Brexit, Britain would go to the “back of queue” in future trade talks? It was an ill-judged intervention. The British liked Obama, overall, but his bossy threat annoyed us and we later decided to leave the EU. Five months later, Donald Trump won the presidential election. As a candidate, he had promised Britain would be “at the top of the queue”, so Brexiteers dared to think that the world’s most powerful country was on their side.
Fast forward to today and, despite all the warm words, the possibility of that “beautiful, beautiful” US-UK trade deal Trump promised looks remote. Worse, if Trump loses the presidential election in November, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States and Britain may well find itself out of favour across the Atlantic. Biden was Obama’s vice-president for eight years. If he wins, American foreign policy will revert to its pre-Trump settings. That’s bad news for Brexit.
On Wednesday, Biden, an Irish Catholic by descent, declared that he would not allow the Irish peace process to become “a casualty of Brexit”. He said a UK-US trade deal would be “contingent” on the Good Friday Agreement being upheld. He wasn’t just fishing for American-Irish votes. That is the firm position of his party and a large chunk of America’s political class.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said there was “no chance” of a free-trade agreement if Britain “violates” international law in trying to override its Withdrawal Agreement with Europe. Four congressmen – three Democratic, one Republican – also wrote to “His Excellency Boris Johnson” warning him against “inflaming tensions that still very much fester today”. Compare and contrast that with Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who said, generously, that “we understand the complexities of situation” and “we trust the United Kingdom”.
Brexiteers can grumble about the lack of respect among senior Democrats for the “special relationship”. They can also point out that three of those four congressmen were overt Irish Republican sympathisers in the Eighties. But the Irish lobby continues to exert a strong influence in Washington and the point must be faced: if Brexit once again breaks down because of a dispute over the dreaded border question, the British Government knows which side a Biden administration would take. For the first time in decades, and at a time when Britain needs Uncle Sam’s support, Anglo-American relations could become seriously frosty.
That said, we do tend to exaggerate how much Americans care about us. At a loud town-hall meeting back in New Hampshire in February, I asked Biden what his approach to Brexit Britain would be. Perhaps he didn’t quite hear me, but he seemed to have no idea what I was saying. It was only when I shouted “Boris Johnson” in his ear that he mumbled “Boris …” and wandered off. No doubt he had more pressing matters on his mind.
It’s clear that Biden doesn’t have any particular animus towards the UK, and a number of senior Tory figures think that his administration might prove more helpful than Trump’s. Whereas Trump praised Brexit but delivered little, President Biden might do the opposite.
Many Conservatives fondly recall the ultra-cordial relations between the Obama and Cameron administrations back when the world was a bit less topsy-turvy. Their hope is that Biden will reverse Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now charmingly renamed the Comprehensive And Progressive Agreement For Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then encourage or permit Britain’s entry, too. America and Brexit Britain would thus join what is fast turning into the greatest trading bloc in the world and become part of the so-called Asian Century.
That sounds a bit like wishful thinking. The Democratic party’s united front over Ireland this week suggests that a Biden administration would be less than eager to help Britain before Europe. The awkward truth is that, if Britain is to become a “trading superpower” after Brexit, the Johnson administration should want Donald Trump to be re-elected.
Nobody says dealing with Trump is easy. Trade talks haven’t proved all that fruitful. Theresa May found the president impossible, famously. Trump much prefers talking to Boris, but the two men have clashed, notably over America’s insistence that Britain cancels its 5G contracts with the Chinese giant Huawei. Pompeo is also understood to be angry that the Foreign Office, perhaps hoping for a Biden victory, has sided with France and Germany over the US’s hard position on sanctions against Iran.
But Britain did agree to cut out Huawei and would probably change tack on Iran if a re-elected Trump insists. We need The Donald far more than The Donald needs us. As far as Brexit is concerned, four more years of Trump might be the only way to stop Obama’s old warning coming true.