Can Boris Johnson Build Bridges With Joe Biden After His Trump Love-In?

How Starmer and the PM both watched like hawks the US election.

Eyelids drooping and chin on his chest, Boris Johnson’s slumped frame on the front bench of the House of Commons was a picture of repose. Having had barely a couple of hours sleep during a long night watching the US presidential election, the prime minister could perhaps have been forgiven when he appeared to stifle a yawn at the end of a long parliamentary day.

Four thousand miles away, as the tantalisingly tight American votes were counted, it was the man Donald Trump had ridiculed as “Sleepy Joe” who looked like he was on course for the White House. And through all the twists and turns of Biden’s electoral college pathway to victory, Johnson and his team were determined to scotch the impression that a Democrat triumph was some kind of wake up call for his own post-Brexit government.‌

After Johnson took over in Downing Street in 2019, the president famously said: “He’s tough and he’s smart, they call him Britain Trump. And his people are saying that’s a good thing.” With hopes of a new US-UK trade deal to offset – at least politically – the loss of trade with the EU, the PM has certainly gone out of his way to gladhand Trump in recent years.

Yet Johnson has also been careful to distance himself from the president when needed, avoiding formal shoulder-to-shoulder photocalls when the UK hosted the Nato summit last year in the election campaign. Crucially, Johnson’s team also realised that Biden was a serious contender soon after he looked likely to steamroller the Democrat primaries early this year.

An Americaphile like many of the British political class, the prime minister stayed up late, snatched some sleep and then got up early again as he was hooked on the coverage from the US. After watching the results in his and partner Carrie’s flat upstairs in No.11 Downing Street, rather than his formal office in No.10, Johnson later headed to his weekly prep for PMQs knowing the outcome was on a knife-edge.

It was a scene mirrored by Keir Starmer, who went to bed at his Kentish Town home after the Florida result seemed to swing things for Trump. The Labour leader then rose early at 4am before seeing the gradually better Biden news dripfeed in through the breaking dawn. Starmer and his top team shared each update via a WhatsApp group titled “Let’s Go Joe”, complete with a photo of Biden wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses.

Many on the group, including Starmer, were nervous at various apparent setbacks for the Democrats. “It felt like Hillary all over again,” one insider said. But one young staffer who had been in the US in 2016 told the group that the result was very different this time and the outcome was “not in doubt”. Their confidence buoyed the group and as daylight arrived, Starmer’s mood lightened too as Biden did indeed edge ahead in key swing states he needed.

What surprised both Labour and the Tories however was the language Trump then used at his East Wing mini-speech, declaring there had been a “major fraud”, wanted to stop the late votes from being counted and said “we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court” to fight it. Steeped in legal propriety, Starmer decided he had to make an issue of the remarks later in the Commons.

The Labour leader had made plain that his shadow cabinet should be scrupulously neutral in the hours before the election, a stance that caused some backlash from the party’s leftwing. But Trump’s fraud claim, itself fraudulent, plus the large number of votes already in, gave the party licence to go for the president. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy warned it was a “very dangerous moment” and Stamer raised the topic at the start of PMQs.

Johnson, ever keen to keep his options open, had actually started the weekly Commons session with his own joke about the overnight US events. Referring to “the result of a heavily contested election”, he wished the Speaker a happy anniversary on his own elevation to the chair, with an added Trump-style tribute for “making the speakership great again”.

When Starmer urged him to get serious and condemn Trump’s stop-counting remarks, the PM stuck to protocol and said “we don’t comment as a UK government on the democratic processes of our friends and allies”. Like the ghost at the feast, Trump’s name came up in three different questions to the PM but he stuck firmly to his neutral stance.

Privately, Labour accepts that Downing Street can’t openly criticise a sitting president about his remarks when the results haven’t finally been counted. In fact, No10 and the Foreign Office had been prepared for the whole issue of legal challenges to the US result. “We had good reporting from the BEW (British Embassy in Washington) that it would be closer than the polls suggested,” one senior figure said.

But a conscious decision was also made not to refrain from talking about the process at all, and foreign secretary Dominic Raab pushed the envelope of protocol by saying “we have full confidence in the checks and balances of the US system to produce a result”. That was seen by some as a gentle nod towards those saying the count was indeed legitimate.

Senior Tories outside government made plain too that the party had a certain distaste for Trump’s approach. Raab’s predecessor Jeremy Hunt said: “The reputation of democracy is at stake and the world is watching. Please proceed carefully.” Foreign affairs select committee chairman Tom Tugendhat added: “Democracy relies on trust that the election is fair. President Trump’s comments undermine that trust even as the counting continues.”

The wider British disdain of Trump was further evident when NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens acidly told Radio 4 that he “couldn’t remember” the president – who once infamously talked of putting the health service “on the table” in trade talks – thanking the NHS for developing the dexamethasone drug treatment that had helped him recover from Covid.‌

Former premier Theresa May added her own apparent swipe at the president, and flirted with support for Biden, when she tweeted that “sadly, today also marks the US leaving the Paris accord — the world’s foremost attempt to build consensus on climate change”.

In fact, May put her finger on one of the key areas of joint working that Johnson hopes can bear fruit with a Biden presidency. The UK chairs the next round of the COP26 climate change talks in Glasgow next year and it’s in both countries’ interests to use it to make a big breakthrough in not just restoring the Paris accord but building on it.‌

Britain also hosts the G7 summit next year and plans to develop a ‘D10’ of democratic nations made up of the seven big western countries along with South Korea, India and Australia. The group will also serve as a counterbalance to China’s growing power, part of one legacy of Trump’s hard-headed approach to Beijing that both Johnson and Biden increasingly share.

Similarly, the UK kept the Iran nuclear deal “on life support” during the Trump years, one official adds, pointing out that Biden had himself helped negotiate the deal for president Obama. With Biden’s hands likely to be tied on domestic policy, his foreign policy is seen as being perhaps his defining mission and the end of Trump’s “America First” fits with the UK’s own support for multilateral international organisations.‌

One UK government insider says: “If you look at what a Biden administration is going to try and do in terms of re-engaging with the world and what our very clear foriegn policy priorities are, we can be quite excited about what the UK and the US are going to do in the next four years.”

Allies of the PM also gently point out that back in 2008 he was one of the few Tories to publicly endorse Obama rather than Republican rival John McCain. They are also at pains to play down the row with Democrats over the Brexit plan to break international law, when Biden and Nancy Pelosi warned against anything that would breach the Good Friday Agreement.

Raab, who met Biden’s close ally Chris Coons on a trip to Washington weeks ago, has tried to build bridges to reassure the Democrats that there will be no threat to peace in Northern Ireland. “The internal market bill is going to get resolved in London and Brussels, not Washington,” one insider says, and some believe the whole Brexit trade issue will be sorted before Biden is even inaugurated in January.

One hindrance that Raab had in getting to meet Biden was his campaign’s strict insistence that it wanted no foreign engagement, even from a friendly power like the UK, because of the Russia interference in the 2016 election. Johnson himself has never met the former vice president. But that ban on foreign links has affected Labour too, denying its activists their traditional role of embedding with the Democrat presidential campaign this year.

Starmer’s team has however maintained strong contacts and it was those links to the Biden team that fed a steady stream of “keep calm” messages to the Labour team overnight on Tuesday. One message made clear that Biden’s post-election speech projected confidence in their numbers. “Trump’s statement about the election being ‘stolen’ because of the prospect that votes will be counted suggests they know they’ve lost and need to try and win through disenfranchisement.” Coming days will test that to the limit.

Some in Labour hope that Starmer can pull off a similar message of unifying leadership in 2024, the ‘no-drama-Starmer’ approach matching Biden’s essential ‘boring is good’ themes. But while Labour are relieved at the prospect of the end of the Trump era, they are firm on not reading too many lessons for British politics, given how different the two countries are. “It’s a very different environment, we never forget that,” one aide said. “It’s too simplistic and wrong to see a read-across.”

Still, on campaign techniques, phone apps, digital tech and other areas lessons are being learned. And with Covid likely to be lingering when the UK holds its own postponed local and Mayoral elections next year, tips on using postal votes (or “absentee ballots” as the Americans call them) to target younger as well as older voters are being shared. Johnson may be getting closer to Biden, but Labour hope their own long road back to power starts in 2021.


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