Behind the scenes

No. 10 launches charm offensive as Joe Biden enters White House

Boris Johnson is wooing new president with plans that set UK apart from EU

Boris Johnson has kicked off a campaign to win over Joe Biden by welcoming the new US president’s inauguration as a “step forward” after a “bumpy period” for the US.

The prime minister’s comments are being widely interpreted as a “coded criticism of Donald Trump’s administration”, says The Guardian, as Downing Street launches a charm offensive designed to sell the virtues of post-Brexit Britain to the new man in the Oval Office.

Past relations between Johnson and Biden have been rocky, with the Democrat leader repeatedly voicing opposition to Brexit. Amid speculation that Biden has never forgiven Johnson’s claim back in 2016 that Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire”, how might No. 10 make amends?

Luck of the Irish Secretary

Much of Biden’s opposition to Brexit stemmed from concerns for the Good Friday Agreement. A proud Irish-American, Biden said last September that the peace deal should not be allowed to “become a casualty of Brexit”.

Such is the strength of Biden’s feelings that former permanent representative to the EU Ivan Rogers suggested that Johnson was awaiting the outcome of the US election before deciding whether to go for a no-deal withdrawal.

But while “the issue of Northern Ireland and Brexit is widely seen as a source of tension between the government and Biden”, writes The Spectator’s deputy political editor Katy Balls in an article for the i news site, “a hint of a solution can be found in the first ministerial trips to the US”.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is expected to be dispatched to the US shortly, and “there’s also talk of seconding a staff member focussed on Northern Ireland issues to the UK embassy in Washington”, according to Balls.

The Financial Times reported in October that British officials had not met with a single member of Biden’s foreign policy team, “hampering Downing Street’s preparations” for the Democratic victory.

However, Balls says that Lewis has been in “close contact” with Democratic Congressman Richard Neals, who chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee and whose maternal grandparents hailed from Northern Ireland. 

Neals is also a close ally of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi - making him a potential conduit to closer dialogue with the Biden administration.

Chinese diplomacy

Another issue through which Johnson is expected to try to endear himself to Biden is the UK’s policy towards China. Developing a shared strategy for future relations with Beijing could be “potentially fruitful ground for cooperation with the incoming US administration”, says Politico - especially after the frosty response in Washington D.C. to the recent EU-China investment deal.

The UK is “more in tune with Biden than it ever was with Trump” on how to deal with threats from the Asian superpower, the news site adds.

Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has argued this week that the UK “needs a consistent, coherent and comprehensive allied consensus in a new relationship with China”.

In an article in the Daily Mail, Sedwill adds that the UK “must contest their behaviour when it disrupts global security, breaks international trade rules, breaches our own anti-slavery measures” - all areas on which Biden’s administration are expected to be tough.

London clearly hopes to “distinguish itself from Brussels” in relation to China, says Politico, which points out that the government has been laying the groundwork for a tougher stance through “significant confrontations with Beijing in recent months” on issues including Hong Kong, Huawei and the treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Sophia Gaston, director of the London-based British Foreign Policy Group think tank, believes that the UK’s priorities for the upcoming G7 meeting in Cornwall have been fashioned with “Biden’s foreign policy goals plainly in sight”, the site adds.

“We can expect to see the UK starting to put some of the meat on the bones [of its China policy] seeking to broker commitments on Magnitsky sanctions, challenging China on human rights and its aggressive recent behaviour towards Australia, and shoring up the global pandemic recovery response,” she said.

Net zero sum game

Trump’s approach to environmental issues was in direct conflict with the UK’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But with a stroke of the pen, Biden yesterday reversed one of his predecessor’s key policies, recommitting the US to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Britain will host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November in Glasgow, and the summit is “viewed as another important event for building ties” between Johnson and Biden’s teams, Balls writes on the i site.

The president’s appointment of longtime environmental campaigner John Kerry to the role of special envoy for climate signals his intention to continue rolling out major environmental reforms. And Johnson appears to have taken his cue from the move, shuffling Alok Sharma from the role of business secretary to work full-time on preparations for the summit as the COP26 president.

Laying the groundwork for further cooperation with the new US administration, Johnson told MPs yesterday that “we hope that President Biden will join us [in setting a target to reach net zero by 2050] and of course we will work with President Biden to secure the transatlantic alliance and Nato”.

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