Boris Johnson’s victory in the Tory party leadership contest on 24 July last year was immediately hailed by Donald Trump as a great step forward for Britain. The US President was effusive in his praise for the Brexit pin-up boy, calling him “tough and smart”.
“They’re saying ‘Britain Trump’, they call him ‘Britain Trump’ – that’s a good thing,” he said.
“They like me over there, that’s what they wanted, that’s what they need, that’s what they need. He’ll get it done.”
Johnson in turn took little time to sidle up to the President, with the Daily Telegraph revealing the Prime Minister had told the US’ ambassador to the UK that Trump was “making America great again”.
Many have painted Johnson as being sycophantic toward the President, with Labour saying the Prime Minister’s U-turn on Huawei earlier this year was an example of him blindly following Trump’s orders to crack down on the Chinese company.
With polls predicting a large victory for Joe Biden in next week’s US election, Downing Street is now reportedly scrambling to position Johnson as a willing ally for the former Vice President and to spin the importance of the special relationship.
They may have cause for concern – in December Biden called the Prime Minister a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
Many in the UK have predicted Biden will give the Prime Minister the cold shoulder over his role in Brexit, his willingness to buddy up with Trump and some unsavoury comments he made about Barack Obama in 2016.
In the lead up to the Brexit referendum, Johnson said Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to “the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
There’s also a general feeling of dislike of the UK and its government around the Democrats right now, which is nicely encapsulated by Nancy Pelosi’s baffling and unfounded statement that Britain has poor standards when it comes to vaccine safety testing.
The upshot of all this could be a shelving of UK-US trade talks, which would put a dent in Johnson’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.
Marshall Auerback, US political pundit and research fellow at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, said Johnson should be prepared for a frosty reception if Biden wins the 2020 election.
“The way he’s handled the Brexit negotiations is not going to help, because Biden has Irish ancestry and the Irish American constituency, especially in the Democratic party, is a very powerful one,” he said.
“If they’re perceived to be adopting a highly nationalistic policy that adversely affects the Good Friday Agreement that’s going to create real problems.”
Biden recently wrote an open letter to the UK government saying Johnson can kiss a potential UK-US trade deal goodbye if he breaks the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The Prime Minister recently introduced legislation that would breach the Withdrawal Agreement, as it pertains to Northern Ireland, if the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union without a deal on 31 December.
However, former Bernie Sanders adviser Robert Hockett – who has been tipped in some Democratic circles to be appointed to a government position by Biden as a standard bearer of the party’s left – said fears in Downing Street about Biden are misplaced.
He said Biden understands Johnson is “above all an opportunist”.
“Biden’s status as an old time ‘pol’, as we call them in the States, is maybe going to work to his advantage and to the advantage of transatlantic relationships and the whole special relationship between the UK and US,” he said.
“One characteristic of this old style American politician is conveying a sense of friendliness and personal warmth and even kind of meaning it – it’s not just opportunistically pretending, but just kind of being an all hail well met sort of fellow.
“My guess is Mr Johnson immediately is all over Mr Biden like a dirty shirt and that Mr Biden will be perfectly fine with that, because he knows how politics works and his team will be fine with it too.”
Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security think tank and former adviser to the late Arizona Senator John McCain, also said he “doesn’t buy” the narrative being pushed in London.
He said: “I worked in the Senate for seven years for John McCain and I worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – I saw Joe get along with all kinds of people and he never hold some sort of personal grudge against anyone, because who they supported.”
The UK and US are already closely aligned on security and defence policy, with formal organisations like the Five Eyes security network ensuring that will last beyond individual administrations.
Biden is also very hawkish on China, despite what Trump says, and will find that Downing Street’s bullish tone about Beijing over the past six months will align closely with his own instincts.
Moreover, Hockett said Biden would be quick to engage with Europe’s major players, Britain included, if victorious to let them know “we’re back” after four years of isolationist rhetoric from Trump.
Among the leaders Biden would be reaching out to along with Johnson is Emmanuel Macron, who also tried to cultivate a close relationship with Trump and even hosted him for the 2017 Bastille Day parade.
However, even if Biden gets along with Johnson it does not mean the UK will necessarily be a priority for the US.
The former Vice President is not expected to push for a UK trade deal in any case, with pundits predicting a more economically protectionist stance from a Biden administration.
The Council for Foreign Relation’s Matthias Matthijs said a potential Biden White House would look to Germany as America’s closest partner in Europe.
“I think instinctively Biden will look to Germany rather than the UK, because I think he basically is, if I’m going to compare Biden with a European politician, a combination of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker,” he said.
“The priority for him will be to have very close ties to the EU and with Germany, which is where he feels most at ease.”
Auerback put it more bluntly.
“The fact of the matter is there’s not much of a special relationship left anymore between the US and the UK – that was gone ages ago,” he said.
“I think Biden is a committed Atlanticist, I think he’ll be more concerned about repairing the relationship with Germany, with Merkel and whoever exceeds her.”