Why Joe Biden's win just put Boris Johnson in a Catch-22 situation

FILE - Britian's Prime Minister Boris Johnson carries a wreath, during the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London, Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. Johnson says Britain and the United States will work together to support democracy and combat climate change. He denies that his close ties to President Donald Trump would hurt U.K.-U.S relations once President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.  (Peter Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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In 2018, Joe Biden sat down for an interview with the former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic party, Nick Clegg. Mr Biden was asked about Brexit. As usual, he spoke his mind. Many American foreign policy experts, including those in the President-elect’s team, fret about Britain’s declining role in the world as a result of leaving the European Union.

Mr Biden said: “I was really disappointed in terms of US interests. If we had any voice in Europe, it was you. I was not surprised, because in times of confusion and great change I think we all become susceptible to demagogues and charlatans who in order to aggrandise their power find a scapegoat.”

In the past few days, asked by a reporter if he had any words for the BBC, Mr Biden had two: “I’m Irish.”

The amusing quip and the deeply felt concern illuminate what the British government must deal with after four-and-a-half years when bluster from pro-Brexit “demagogues and charlatans” finally becomes a reality.

Negotiations between Britain and the EU continue about a deal, as we stagger towards Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s self-imposed deadline of December 31. But Mr Johnson faces exactly the same dilemma with which he undermined his predecessor Theresa May. Will it be a painful Brexit or a pointless Brexit?

"Painful" would be crashing out of the EU without a deal, thereby deliberately and significantly damaging the British economy. Enormous lorry parks are being constructed in Kent to cope with predicted tailbacks from the port of Dover, the main trade route to France. Government sources speak of special "Kent passports", permits without which lorries will not be able to reach the coast. This painful Brexit will hit as Britain also faces the deepest economic slowdown in living memory as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

But if Mr Johnson does secure a deal with the EU, his personal position may become even more precarious. Any deal will, predictably, be branded a "sell-out" by Mr Johnson's political opponents, including Nigel Farage. Some within his own party may also be disgusted at a pointless Brexit. And since any new deal with Europe will be worse than the one Britain already has, the majority of British citizens who now believe Brexit is a mistake will be furious that after almost five years of negotiations we are making ourselves poorer with few benefits.

Mr Johnson thought it would go differently. He had a warm relationship with the Trump family. US President Donald Trump called him (ungrammatically) "Britain Trump". An unnamed source in the Biden camp told a British newspaper that Mr Johnson is regarded rather as a "shapeshifting creep". Others believe that the Prime Minister fits Mr Biden's description of "demagogues and charlatans who in order to aggrandise their power find a scapegoat". Mr Biden himself, however, is a good friend of Britain even if he is not a fan of Mr Johnson.

For some years I was a neighbour of the former Labour party leader Neil Kinnock. Mr Biden admired Mr Kinnock so much that he once plagiarised one of Mr Kinnock's speeches, something that caused a mini-scandal at the time. But Mr Kinnock laughed uproariously at the implied compliment, and Mr Biden shared the joke. The two became friends and Mr Kinnock told me the President-elect was also a true American friend of the UK.

Traffic crosses the border into Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic alongside a Brexit Border poster on the Dublin road Co Armagh border, between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic, on December 1, 2017,  
The European Union will not accept Britain's  Brexit offer if Ireland is not satisfied with proposals for future border arrangements, EU President Donald Tusk said in Dublin on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Paul FAITH
Traffic crosses the border into Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic alongside a Brexit Border poster. AFP

Besides, some years ago during a row between the then British prime minister and the US president, the British ambassador to Washington wryly informed me that the prime minister and the president will always have to get along because those were “the rules” of diplomacy. A US State Department official said much the same when he told me “the totality of the relationships” between the UK and US was so great that whatever their differences the two leaders would work constructively together.

All this means that the hugely pragmatic and personally generous Mr Biden wants a strong relationship with the UK, and will therefore tolerate Mr Johnson. The bad news is that what a few deluded British commentators still call "the special relationship" exists more in the British imagination than in the American reality. When Mr Biden says "I'm Irish", he is reaffirming his commitment to peace in Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. That's his "special relationship". Any chicanery from Mr Johnson on Ireland will make life exceedingly difficult for the UK.

In any case, if it comes to a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal, it may take years – and no president ultimately decides. Congress does, in particular the finely balanced Senate. The US Trade Representative has held public hearings on Brexit during which US lobbyists from the farming, health care, aviation and other sectors demanded that any trade treaty with the UK must open up British markets to their products and interests. Members of Congress will obviously seek the greatest benefit for these powerful lobbies that provide jobs in their states, and contribute to their own campaign funds.

Mr Johnson’s needs and hopes are not on any American politician’s list of priorities, especially those who – like Mr Trump himself – see Mr Johnson as just Mr Trump’s British “Mini-Me”.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National