Joe Biden gets sixth date with Rishi Sunak but meeting King Charles III is the real draw

UK prime minister will want closer ties with Washington, while US president will bask in audience with the monarch

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, with US President Joe Biden at the White House in June. They will have their sixth meeting on Sunday, when Mr Biden visits Britain. Photo: No 10 Downing Street
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Six meetings between the two heads of state in nine months suggests a blossoming partnership.

Trailing in the polls, under fire for failing policies and with the ghost of his predecessor ever present, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will consider President Joe Biden’s return to Britain on Sunday a welcome diversion from the domestic turmoil.

The US president may also see the first few days of a European tour a pleasant pit stop in familiar surroundings with the added benefit of meeting the United Kingdom's new head of state.

There are many things that Mr Sunak would like from Washington – a post-Brexit free-trade deal for one – but that is currently not even in the conversation.

But when Mr Biden returns to Britain this weekend it will be another opportunity for the pair to strengthen their personal relationship, something immensely helpful in politics.

A united stance on Ukraine will also help cement the war-ravaged country’s rapid pathway to Nato membership.

Mr Biden had initially been a little “standoffish” when Mr Sunak became Britain’s third prime minister in two months in October last year, but the Conservative leader’s personable traits appear to have won him over.

“I think President Biden has come around to the idea that if anyone's going to be supportive of what the US wants to do internationally it is going to be the UK,” said Dr Alan Mendoza, of the Henry Jackson think tank.

While Ukraine will be first on the agenda, getting Sweden past the “Turkish blockade” on its protracted Nato-membership application will also feature, Dr Mendoza said.

But there might be the odd tricky moment in their chats. Mr Biden apparently vetoed Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s attempt to become Nato secretary general, a further emasculation of Britain’s post-Brexit standing.

But a Whitehall source suggested that Mr Sunak’s congenial character will ease such challenging issues, unlike his immediate predecessors. “You can’t imagine the likes of [former prime ministers] Boris Johnson or Liz Truss having this particular relationship with Biden given their tricky personalities,” the source said.

Mr Sunak, 43, might also benefit from some of the 80-year-old president’s political wisdom acquired during six decades in Washington.

Pleasant as the meeting with Mr Sunak might be, the American leader will more likely be anticipating driving into Windsor Castle for his first audience with King Charles III since his coronation.

Having sent his wife in his place for the May crowning, Mr Biden will hope to form a useful working side-relationship with the British monarch as many of his predecessors have done.

The late Queen Elizabeth II met 13 presidents, forming a useful added influence on Washington while the US leaders were able to bask in the glow of British royalty, something that continues to fascinate Americans.

“The relationship between the British monarch and the American president, in particular, lends itself to getting things done,” Dr Mendoza said. “There's a soft power involved in meeting the monarch that can later be transferred into policy terms. But in this meeting the king will be asked by the government for nothing more than softening Biden up a bit.”

The offer of a state visit for Mr Biden will also be well received.

The consistent meetings with the US president suggest Mr Sunak’s useful trait of building strong relationships with world leaders that might help cover the fractures within his own party.

“He's capable of creating relationships that could be difficult and it shows you Rishi is someone who wants to get things done in that he's happy to speak to everyone,” the Whitehall source said. “It’s the quiet leader that he is.”

It was also a reminder that Britain “remains a front rank diplomatic and economic power” despite a national pastime of running down the country “which is a view clearly not shared by the US president”, Dr Mendoza said.

On Tuesday Mr Biden will travel from London to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the Nato summit before meeting Nordic leaders in Finland on Thursday.

Before he arrived in Britain, Downing Street said that the meeting would “reflect the strong relationship between the UK and US building on a series of bilateral visits and meetings earlier this year”.

What is clear is that a strong and genuine working relationship has evolved between the two leaders to the point that Mr Biden is unlikely to ever repeat his error when the British politician became prime minister mispronouncing his name “Rashi Sanook”.

Updated: July 08, 2023, 6:29 AM