Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison's Zoom love-in over post-Brexit alliance

Isolating but not isolationist, the Conservative elites look to etch out a free trade deal

It was Boris Johnson’s fifth “good evening” of the morning – or the evening for those tuning in from Australia along with their Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to a Zoom presentation.

The event was organised by the UK centre-right think tank Policy Exchange on Monday to bestow on Mr Morrison the inaugural Grotius Prize, named in honour of the Dutch founding thinker of international law, Hugo Grotius.

Dean Godson, the director of Policy Exchange, said Grotius, a significant figure in philosophy and political theory in the 16th and 17th centuries, was known to many for his key work on the law of war, of the sea, on peace and on free trade.

No one, Mr Godson said, was more appropriate to be the first recipient of the inaugural Grotius medal than Mr Morrison, who like the British prime minister was “isolating but not isolationist”.

The Australian leader returned recently from a trip to Japan, and Mr Johnson had received a track-and-trace notification that he had been in contact with an MP who had tested positive for Covid-19.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bump elbows to greet prior to the official welcome ceremony at Suga's official residence in Tokyo Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Morrison is in Japan to hold talks with Suga to bolster defense ties between the two U.S. allies to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

Handing over to Mr Johnson in quarantine at Downing Street to say a few words of congratulations and appreciation to the guest of honour, Mr Godson hoped that the Zoom connection was working. It wasn’t.

It began well enough, with Mr Johnson saying: “Good evening to everybody in Canberra, good morning from London, it gives me great pleasure to con ...” before technical glitches led to him disappear from the screen only to reappear.

Periodically, he could be heard saying “good” and “good evening”, before Mr Godson ended the salutations by throwing straight to Mr Morrison.

Mr Johnson, returning to the screen half an hour later and after briefly congratulating his “friend, Scott Morrison” on winning the Policy Exchange award, continued.

“And goodness Grotius me, you might say, and, ah, listen, I mean all the hysterical rivalry between the two countries – whether between the fans of, ah, Larwood or Bradman or, ah, Jonny Wilkinson versus the Wallabies’ 2003 squad, the hysterical partisans of Marmite or, or Vegemite – there is a huge amount that unites us and that we do together.

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I'm delighted that we're doing a deal... Here's to
us, Scott. Well done.

"And it's fantastic to work with, with Scott in sticking up for the things that both the UK and Australia believe in together and believe in passionately."

His hair typically dishevelled and demeanour jaunty, he seemed confident that a detente could be reached through a bilateral agreement to allow the free movement of Tim Tams and Penguins – chocolate-covered biscuits filled with chocolate cream.

“Our common security principles, our belief in democracy, in fundamental freedoms, in the rules-based international system, and, of course, there's also the small matter of free trade.

“And I'm delighted that we're doing a deal,” Mr Johnson said, referring to negotiations over a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with Australia.

“I hope that we'll be able to conclude a deal that will see – finally – the people of Britain able to, ah, able to access the supplies of Tim Tams, ah, Tim Tam chocolate biscuits, in the quantities that we need, and the people in Australia able to get, ah, Penguins, ah, in exchange.

“Here's to us, Scott. Well done. Many congratulations on your, on your prize. And here's to the UK-Australia free-trade deal.”

For his part, Mr Morrison observed that Boris was known for his many enthusiasms, too many to review in the time available that evening but one striking characteristic was his unshakeable belief in the British people.

“He has great ambitions, global ambitions for Britain,” the Australian leader said.

“He is rightly proud of Britain's contributions to the world, making a better and a safer place from the resilient institutions of Westminster democracy and our justice system to the defiant and resolute role played in defending those freedoms at great cost.

"We remain true partners in these great endeavours, Australia and the United Kingdom, and many more.

“We welcome, in particular, the transformational defence and security agenda that Prime Minister Johnson announced last week, which we will partner with as we implement our own defence strategic update we announced earlier this year.

"We commend his ambitious new economic plans, including for engagement in the Indo-Pacific through direct bilateral trade ties as well as including, of course, the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and potentially joining in on the [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership] the CPTPP.”

The comments underlined another important influence for the expression of mutual admiration in the potential for deeper link-ups, perhaps even as part of an axis.

China’s position in global affairs is troubling the major democracies, as shown by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, India, Australia and Japan at a second summit of foreign ministers in Tokyo last month.

As Alexander Downer, chairman of trustees at the think tank and Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, said towards the end of today’s event, Mr Morrison had mounted a strong defence of the national interest and sovereignty.

“Even your worst critics wouldn’t say that you had let the side down on that front,” Mr Downer told his prime minister, smiling.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 12: Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer speaks at National Press Club on November 12, 2019 in Canberra, Australia. Alexander Downer was Australia's longest serving Foreign Minister and is the former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Downer said that the loss of Britain from the EU will be a loss for Australia.  (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

“There have been times when you have been very robust, and quite rightly so.

“You have to deal in Australia with the most important single geopolitical issue of our time, which is the rise of China. You’ve used the phrase which I’ve used for years, that a policy of containment of China will never work. We shouldn’t pursue a policy of containment, we should pursue a policy of engagement and co-operation with China.

“They haven’t been very co-operative. You can’t say that, but I will. I think they could have been much more co-operative with Australia than they have been, and I don’t think it’s in their interests not to collaborate and co-operate.”

Mr Downer said he knew that his country would welcome the UK joining the CPTPP and quickly concluding a free-trade agreement with Australia and other countries in the region.

“I’m personally delighted that so many people in the UK want to get the UK back into the Indo-Pacific region,” he said. Such a deal, he said, would be very much in Australia’s interests as well.

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Ideally, a deal between Britain and Australia would involve no tariffs, no quotas

It was a similar note to that sounded last week by Tony Abbott, one of Mr Morrison’s predecessors as Australian prime minister who is now adviser to the UK’s Board of Trade.

Mr Abbott told the International Trade Committee that there was an eagerness on both sides to get the Australian deal done before Christmas.

“Ideally, a deal between Britain and Australia would involve no tariffs, no quotas, as full as possible mutual recognition of standards and qualifications, and as free as possible movement of people for well-paid work, not welfare,” he said.

While the national anthem patriotically extols a land "girt by sea", many Australians still commonly referred to the UK as the “mother country”, perhaps until about the time that Britain joined the EU in the 1970s.

As the waters close over that EU relationship, something of a familial rehabilitation is occurring – at least at the top of the two countries’ ruling parties.