Business Maverick

Business Maverick

In Biden’s Oval Office, Johnson’s Big Brexit Promise Slips Away

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, during a news conference inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Photographer: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson talked up a trade deal with the U.S. as one of the major prizes of his campaign for Brexit. Sitting in the Oval Office on Tuesday, it was clear the U.K. leader has little hope of delivering it.

“We’re going to talk a little bit about trade today and we’re going to have to work that through,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the start of his meeting with Johnson, when asked about the prospects for an agreement.

The lukewarm response comes after the British prime minister himself tried to downplay expectations of progress. On the plane to New York, he told reporters Biden has “a lot of fish to fry” and didn’t have time to negotiate. He also hinted to Sky News he doesn’t expect an agreement before the next U.K. general election, due in 2024.

Then hours before Johnson’s meeting with Biden came a major strategy shift. A person familiar with the matter said the U.K. is exploring joining an existing free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, a recognition that the Biden administration won’t start talks on a bespoke deal any time soon.

Yet even that idea is fraught with political risk for Johnson, who remains under pressure to prove the biggest upheaval in British foreign policy in 50 years — divorcing from the country’s largest trading partner — was worth it. Back in 2016, Johnson criticized then-President Barack Obama’s warning that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for a U.S. trade deal if it voted for Brexit.

As well as the political embarrassment of not delivering on a key Brexit pledge, any U.K. effort to join the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement would face major procedural obstacles and could be interpreted as an effort by Downing Street to play catch-up, given the EU has separate trade deals with Canada and Mexico.

Still a Priority

“We are still keen to agree a U.S.-U.K. trade deal,” Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters in Washington. “That still remains a priority.”

Johnson, who was born in the U.S., is acutely aware of the U.K. media’s obsession with the “special relationship,” which was immortalized by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But his relationship with Biden has been far from smooth and there were reminders of why in their opening remarks, especially on Brexit. The president has long been critical, especially over its impact on Northern Ireland, and he warned Johnson again not to do anything to harm the region’s fragile peace.

The president has previously said there would be no chance of a trade deal if Brexit damaged the peace process, while British officials have struggled to persuade the Biden administration that the EU divorce deal needs rewriting.


There have been differences, too, on Afghanistan, after the U.K. government was left blindsided by the U.S. handling of the chaotic pullout amid little consultation with NATO allies.

Read more: Johnson Has a Chance to Build on Submarine Coup With Biden Talks

Yet the mood ahead of their meeting was lifted by a three-way deal to supply nuclear submarines to Australia, which reinforced the idea of a special bond underpinned by U.S.-U.K. security interests.

The two leaders also discussed China and Russia in their meeting and agreed to approach the issue based on “shared values,” the U.K. side said.

And earlier Tuesday, Biden delivered on one of Johnson’s key priorities: securing more U.S. funding to help poorer nations fight climate change. The U.K. hosts the next round of global climate talks starting late next month.

‘Real Lead’

“It’s fantastic to see the U.S. stepping up and providing a real, real lead,” Johnson said after Biden’s announcement to double the U.S.’s commitment.

The U.K. hopes the U.S. move will spur other nations to reach the $100 billion annual funding target and on Wednesday, Johnson will deliver a stark warning to the United Nations in a speech about the dangers of climate change.

“It is time for humanity to grow up,” he will say, according to remarks released in advance by his office. “It is time for us to listen to the warnings of the scientists — and look at Covid, if you want an example of gloomy scientists being proved right — and to understand who we are and what we are doing.”

But it’s progress on trade — or lack of — that is likely to define perceptions of Johnson’s trip. And in his Oval Office, Biden left little doubt where things stand.


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