LONDON/WASHINGTON – In December 2015, Boris Johnson joked that he wouldn’t go to some parts of New York because of the risk of meeting Donald Trump, a man of “stupefying ignorance.”
How times change.
Johnson was London’s popular mayor, Trump a presidential outsider attacking the U.K. capital on the campaign trail. But two months later, Johnson threw his considerable charisma behind Brexit, setting in motion a chain of events that would bring the two together as allies at the Group of Seven summit.
They have spoken at least five times in the month since Johnson became U.K. prime minister, sealing a rapprochement that was already evident at the United Nations in 2017. Johnson, then foreign secretary, approached Trump with a warm handshake and a matching look of black suit, red tie and similar blond hair. It was classic Johnson: animated chatter, arms gesturing wildly. The British premier knows how to turn on the charm.
And he will be taking it up a notch for their first meeting as fellow leaders over breakfast in Biarritz, France, on Sunday. With Johnson seeking support for Brexit and the EU anxious about being blindsided by Trump, their tete-a-tete is the most-anticipated of the summit.
But fanfare aside, Johnson is in a precarious position.
The gargantuan task of leaving the EU cost his two predecessors their jobs and Johnson, the public face of Brexit, has to make it happen somehow. Amid forecasts of economic catastrophe if he leaves without an exit deal, he is clinging to the prospect of a free trade agreement with the world’s largest economy to show it was all worth it.
Trump has been open in his support for Brexit — in fact, he often says how he predicted the outcome the day before from his golf course in Scotland. And for him, the prospect of the U.K. leaving without a deal, and the greater divisions it will sow in Europe, is an opportunity to exploit.
Peeling the U.K. away from France and Germany would play into Trump’s strategy, and victory for Johnson offers legitimacy of sorts to Trump’s style of politics.
Both men came to power with populist messages and idiosyncratic use of language: Trump favors short words and pithy phrases such as “sad” and “fake news”; Johnson likes arcane phrases peppered with Latin and classical references.
And then there are visuals. Photographers will be snapping maniacally when Trump’s carefully sprayed hairdo meets Johnson’s studiously untidy thatch.
“Imagine Donald Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson said in a leaked audio obtained by BuzzFeed News last year. “He’d go in bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.”
It is a balancing act for both men, though.
Trump is toxic in the U.K. — his two visits to Britain drew mass protests — so Johnson also needs to be careful not to appear to be too cozy with the U.S. leader. He has an election to fight before too long if he is to turn the fragile majority he inherited into a more stable platform for governing.
So the president won’t be pushing Johnson this weekend on the issues like Iran or Huawei where he needs help in his efforts to strong arm the other EU powers. But there may eventually be a quid pro quo for the “fantastic” trade deal Trump has dangled.
Trump’s trade talks rarely prove speedy. He remains locked in a trade war with China and a revised accord with Canada and Mexico dragged on for over a year and is stalled in Congress. An agreement with the U.K. could be years in the making and Trump drives a hard bargain — whether he likes you or not.
There are also important differences in their world view.
Johnson favors immigration, Trump famously doesn’t. The U.K. is signed up to the Paris climate agreement whereas Trump pulled out. And while the U.K. shares Trump’s concerns about access to Chinese markets, Johnson believes they should be addressed by giving the World Trade Organization more teeth. Trump is more concerned at blunting the WTO’s teeth.
On landing in Biarritz, Johnson went out of his way to find the correct turn of phrase to draw attention to the damage Trump’s tariff policy was unleashing without blaming him overtly: “Those who support the tariffs are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy, irrespective of whether or not that is true.”
Johnson also urged Trump to remove the “considerable barriers” for U.K. companies seeking to export to the American market, saying they risked impeding a free trade deal after Brexit.
Johnson pointed to a string of U.K. products — ranging from shower trays to Britain’s beloved pork pies — that are not allowed on the American market.
“I think there is a massive opportunity for Britain, but we must understand that it is not all going to be plain sailing,” Johnson told reporters. “There remain very considerable barriers in the U.S. to British businesses which are not widely understood,” he said, adding that he had raised this in telephone discussions with Trump, and would do so again when they meet for bilateral talks on Sunday morning.
Johnson and other supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union see a trade deal with the U.S. as key to making a success of Brexit, by creating new opportunities for British firms.
The issue could become a rare bone of contention between Johnson and Trump, with the pair having warm relations dating back to well before the British premier arrived in office last month.
In a characteristic flourish, Johnson complained in particular that Americans can’t savor Britain’s famed Melton Mowbray pork pies, which he said are sold even in Thailand and Iceland. The pastries “are currently unable to enter the U.S. market because of, I don’t know, some sort of Food and Drug Administration restriction,” he said, without specifying further.
Trump is a man who likes winners, and for now he considers it is in his interest to prop up his British friend. “He’s tough and he’s smart,” he said back in July. ‘They call him ‘Britain Trump.'”
This weekend the two men are likely to form an important alliance — Johnson walking a fine line. The challenge for the British premier is to keep it that way.