The time of the Prime Minister as a populist is over.
The The United States and the United Kingdom have always moved together in a kind of political blockage. So it was with Reagan and Thatcher, Blair and Clinton, then with Blair and Bush, and also with Obama and Cameron. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump got along pretty well – but what about Johnson and Biden?
It will be an embarrassing change for Johnson. He and Trump were a good match. Both were natural activists, more comfortable with crowds than with political details. Johnson fought the Brexit campaign on the promise that Britain would “take back control” of Brussels. It was a line that rhymes closely with Trump’s promise to “make America great again.” Both suggested the nations go in the wrong direction and promised an imminent return to the right path. Both messages have proven to be very effective.
Alerting to this similarity, Trump described his British counterpart as “Britain Trump,” a nickname Johnson hailed. But the friendship with Trump had later meaning for Johnson. A good relationship was crucial to Britain’s chances of negotiating a favorable post-Brexit trade deal with the US About half of UK exports are currently destined for the EU, and there are no still agree with Brussels on what happens to these goods when British trade agreements with the EU expire at the end of the year. A good relationship with Trump has allowed Johnson to present the United States as the answer to this looming economic threat and has helped shape Johnson’s populist posture, Trump-lite.
But Biden’s victory ended it all. Johnson’s political character will need to change, and the first signs of a change came in the congratulatory message he sent to Biden: “I look forward to working closely together on our common priorities, from climate change to trade and security. ” The mention of climate change was new. Johnson never broached the subject with Trump, knowing it was not (to say the least) a priority. The president-elect has already obtained a change of tactics from the prime minister.
This moment of change coincides with cuts within Johnson’s closest circle of advisers. At the end of the summer, the Prime Minister decided to create the post of official press attaché, who would hold a daily televised press conference. So far UK governments have allowed messages to be filtered into the public domain through a small circle of political correspondents known as the ‘Lobby’. Under Johnson’s leadership, the lobby has become a hotbed of government leaks, secret briefings and political punches. (Full disclosure – I am a former lobby reporter). The situation has gotten so bad that even the news of a second COVID lockdown has leaked to the press. Part of the motivation for creating the post of press secretary was to eliminate the lobby quagmire, allowing the government to communicate in a more controlled manner.
The problem for Johnson was that there were senior executives in his operation who liked to do business in this elusive and informal manner, and who didn’t want the new press secretary, rightly seeing it as an attempt to cut themselves off. wings. The two most threatened aides were Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Downing Street communications chief Lee Cain. After a few brutal days of political infighting, the situation fell into a terrible mess, which ended with the dismissal of the two men.
What looked like a simple internal staffing problem was actually of great importance. Cummings and Cain were closely associated with the Brexit campaign and had pushed Johnson in a more populist direction. Their influence over the Prime Minister does not make them like mainstream Conservatives, who see them as troublemakers and often for good reason. Lee Cain, for example, was at one point a Labor Party activist. It is also what one might call the most difficult end of British political life. In the 2010 general election, for example, he disguised himself as a chicken and followed David Cameron on the electoral trail, in a stunt intended to humiliate the then prime minister. On one occasion, he had to be escorted by the police, still in costume, while Cameron and his wife watched.
Cain will not fail. A Downing Street adviser told the Radio Times reporter Tom Newton Dunn that “literally no one here is crying for Lee this morning. A rude, needlessly abrasive, insecure, brainless clown for the government, who smashed Boris’s communications into the ground before flying away without apologizing. Dominic Cummings’ departure will also be welcomed. His enormous influence over the Prime Minister was felt by mainstream Tories, but perhaps most significantly by Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Symonds, a former political adviser, is known to be talkative and passionate in her opinions. She has often urged Johnson to adopt greener policies, which is anathema to Cummings, who did not have time for environmentalism. But Cummings is gone now, sacked for, among other things, a briefing against Symonds. From now on, the UK government will depend less on the instincts of unelected officials like Cummings. This increases the potential not only for Symonds (admittedly unelected), but also for cabinet members and senior officials to exert influence.
It is ironic that the arrival of a Democrat in the White House coincides with the decision of the British Prime Minister to switch to a more cautious and more conservative form of government. It is also remarkable that this turning point can be greeted with the approval of the newly elected Democratic president. If Johnson can make that change and build a good relationship with Biden, then he will have done a lot to shed his Trump-lite image, which will do him no harm with the new administration.
But will it be enough to get a US trade deal with Johnson? It was in 2017 that Liam Fox, the then international trade secretary, first arrived in the United States to begin trade negotiations with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. But all this time, the negotiations came to naught – and why would they? Britain cannot reasonably expect to enter into trade deals of any substance with the United States until its relationship with the EU is resolved. Four years have passed since the Brexit vote, and there is still no sign of a deal with Brussels, or any progress at all. In recent weeks, negotiations have deteriorated so badly that Sir David Frost, Britain’s main Brexit negotiator, is reportedly on the verge of resigning.
Biden brings an extra layer of complexity to Britain’s Brexit challenge. Unlike Trump, he is broadly in favor of the EU. He is also proud of his Irish descent, which puts the elected president at the center of the thorniest issue of all, and that’s what Brexit means for Ireland. Brexit risks the return of a physical border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic. Part of the genius of the Good Friday deal was that while allowing Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, it removed all signs of a border between north and south. In this way, loyalists could imagine themselves to be British while nationalists could see themselves as living in a united Ireland.
Johnson’s inability to strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU (at least as of this writing) jeopardizes that carefully crafted balance, and Biden has made his point clear on this. In a tweet in September, he wrote: ‘We cannot allow the Good Friday deal that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a victim of Brexit. Any trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom must be conditional on compliance with the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period. ”The message is clear: fix Brexit, don’t mess Ireland, then we’ll talk about trade.
Johnson was Trump’s man in Europe. Could he ever play the same role for Biden? Perhaps. After all, Johnson has the great advantage of not really believing in anything, which makes him very adaptable. Biden’s victory could make compromise with the EU more attractive to Johnson, especially now that his more extreme advisers have left Downing Street.
Sections of the Conservative Party would regard any compromise with Brussels as a betrayal. But the British electorate suffers from political fatigue. The past five years have been a mad race from one self-induced crisis to another. Britain had a general election in 2015, the Brexit vote in 2016, another general election in 2017, and then another 2019 general election, and now the final Brexit deadline is approaching at the end of this pandemic year – it all felt like government by whirlwind. It has to end eventually, and the mere fact of Biden’s victory might help draw a conclusion.
Johnson’s time as a populist has ended. This may help solve its immediate political problems (although a new, ambitious climate plan announced Wednesday could take him to dangerous territory with part of his base) and endear him to the president-elect. But in the next election, the people who voted for Brexit and gave it a landslide victory in 2019 may not be so forgiving.