Tue 11 May 2021

Jonathan Lis explains why Boris Johnson will not simply abandon the divisive nationalist, neo-imperialist politics he has built his premiership on just because Donald Trump is on his way out of the White House

For a moment, things seemed to be on the verge of improving in Britain. The US Presidential Election had taken place. A centrist statesman had been voted in. The British Prime Minister had even congratulated him. Many commentators pondered whether the UK might, finally, also change course.

Then, on both sides of the Atlantic, came clarity. The US is undergoing a full-blown attempted coup – and the UK Government is remaining silent on it, pushing ahead with violations of international law, and inching further towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

If you think Joe Biden will change Britain, it may be time to think again.

Silence in the Coup

The first signs of ‘business as usual’ came the day after the election.

Donald Trump, who had warned for months and indeed years that he would never accept defeat, was furiously calling for the vote count to end. Labour Leader Keir Starmer challenged Boris Johnson to confirm that no election candidate should decide which ballots count. But Johnson refused to make even the blandest affirmation to that effect. On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab would not even endorse the statement that, in a democratic election, all votes should count.

We have come to expect the political cowardice and moral bankruptcy, but even this Government has outdone itself.

The Conservative establishment wanted Trump to win because it likes his style, believes in his agenda, and has based its model of disruption on his.

Consider what has happened in America since Biden’s victory was confirmed at the weekend. The Republican leadership has not only refused to concede the election, it has actively tried to steal it. Trump has spent days spreading conspiracy theories about supposed fraud. His Secretary of State has discussed a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration”. His Attorney General has begun a federal investigation into voting irregularities on the basis of no credible evidence. Meanwhile, the President himself has dismissed much of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon.

In any other country, we would call this what it is. The UK Government has not raised a squeak of criticism.

The Nationalism Continues

Even Johnson’s seemingly normal overtures to Biden reveal the malignancy. Concealed beneath the reassuring messages of congratulations, were two stories of Johnson’s premiership.

The Prime Minister’s less than effusive tweet last Saturday not only came over an hour after Starmer’s much more enthusiastic statement, it was later revealed to be superimposed on a first message, only partially erased, congratulating Trump. More significant still was the readout of Johnson and Biden’s first phone call. While Biden’s team reported that the President-Elect had “reaffirmed his support for the Good Friday Agreement”, Downing Street recorded no discussion at all on the subject.

Both incidents are minor in themselves, but speak to a wider narrative: that the Conservative establishment wanted Trump to win because it likes his style, believes in his agenda, and has based its model of disruption on his. Worse, it has no interest at all in the concerns of Ireland or Northern Irish peace.

Last week many commentators, myself included, speculated that the Biden victory could provide the perfect opportunity for the Government to climb down on the Internal Market Bill, the clauses of which break the Brexit Withdrawal Treaty and threaten the equilibrium in Northern Ireland. Part of the reason was Biden’s strong affinity for Ireland and insistence on the Good Friday Agreement as a condition for strong UK-US ties. The other part was the necessity, in Trump’s absence, to rebuild ties with the EU.

The House of Lords duly provided Downing Street with its ladder: the largest Government defeat of the bill in the upper chamber for more than 20 years. But the Government did not climb down. It dug in.

A statement declared that “we will retable these clauses” in the Commons, adding that “we expect the House of Lords to recognise that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure they continue to have unfettered access to the UK under all circumstances”. In other words, no Democratic victory or Lords defeat will set the Government off-course. International law will be broken and the reality of Brexit will be denied.

A man who rose to power on the back of culture wars, anti-immigrant hostility and neo-imperialist fantasy will not suddenly become a unifying One Nation Tory.

That defiance seems to have bled into the Brexit negotiations. Reports suggest that the UK is still refusing a mechanism which forces tariffs on Britain if it diverges from EU standards, and EU officials appear more pessimistic this week than in the previous fortnight. A deal may still emerge, but the Government continues to haemorrhage both time and goodwill, for no benefit whatever.

Regrettably, it seems that a Biden White House will not kickstart any more constructive EU engagement from Westminster.

Still a Trump Government

There was good reason to hope that Biden might have a good influence on Britain. Unlike Trump, he loathes nationalism, strongly supports multilateralism and will not tolerate international law-breaking. Any UK Government needs to engage with its US counterpart and the theory was that the Democrats’ victory might incentivise a change in approach.

Perhaps that was always overly optimistic. Firstly, Biden did not win by a landslide. While emphatic in the popular vote and – as projections stand – equal to Trump’s 2016 tally in the electoral college, this was not the type of defeat inflicted on US election candidates in 1984, 1988 or 1996. An unabashed white nationalist who espoused fascist rhetoric for four years polled nearly 73 million votes. A comprehensive repudiation simply did not come.

That will sustain Trump’s flame in the Republicans’ hearth – and the Conservatives’. Trump lost this time, but his specific brand of demagoguery has demonstrated its appeal. Future Trumps will emerge and adapt on both sides of the Atlantic and Johnson’s brand of Conservatism will be ready for them. There is a chance that they simply stick to the old script in the hope of long-term victory.

The other key point is that Johnson is who he is. People, like governments, do not just change their character overnight. Aggressive nationalism may on occasion be tempered, but not transformed. A man who rose to power on the back of culture wars, anti-immigrant hostility and neo-imperialist fantasy will not suddenly become a unifying One Nation Tory.

Nor will that change with the departure of Dominic Cummings. Cummings may have been calling the shots, but the Prime Minister explicitly endorsed him. It was Johnson who built a career on populist, inflammatory rhetoric and Johnson who bears responsibility for every democratic outrage the Government has perpetrated.

Of course the Government will need to embrace Biden and that relationship will now be rooted in the expectation of decency and fairness, not transaction or grift. But it could be that Johnson will simply focus on the areas where they do agree – climate change, for instance – and downplay the rest. Downing Street may have reasoned that the Democrats have already made up their mind about it, so it does not actually need to change course.

The most important point of all is that the Government does not want to change course. Downing Street believes that it was elected on a nationalist agenda to put Britain first and go it alone in the world. The fact that such an ideology has been defeated in the US is neither here nor there.

So What Now?

In practical terms, then, nothing much will change.

Biden has little affinity for Johnson and will not offer Britain particular privileges – but, in concrete terms, the same was true of Trump. For all the current President’s warm words, he offered neither Johnson nor Theresa May before him any demonstrable reward for their sycophancy.

In particular, Biden’s stance on a trade deal will look remarkably similar to Trump’s. There is no reason why the new President will be any less ruthless or back down on the demands of the US agriculture sector. Business, after all, is business and Biden’s job will be to represent American interests. Rather than confront the political and economic reality of such a deal, Brexiters will simply pretend they never wanted it.

But there is one crumb of consolation. While the Government will not fundamentally change, it could adapt its short-term tactics. The UK might become more cautious in its international behaviour and slower to pervert domestic democratic norms. Certainly, it will not now find cover in Washington for its more extreme instincts and Johnson’s indecency will make him an outlier. It will no longer be just most of the world watching us in disbelief, but the most powerful country in the world, and our single most important ally.

In the end, however, it amounts to little comfort. The UK has chosen its own path. It staked the house on Trump, and will now stake it on Trumpism. It is not just that the UK won’t be a bridge between the US and EU: it is burning its own bridge on both sides.

Britain has alienated its oldest friends and now finds itself adrift. Never in our lifetimes have we been more isolated or exposed.

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