The barbs being traded across the Atlantic, between British Conservatives and American Democrats, are a reminder of how this U.S. presidential race is an awkward one for Boris Johnson’s Tories. Whisper it, but Donald Trump has been almost as influential in reshaping the means and mien of the U.K.’s Conservative Party as he has the Republican Party. Many Tories quite like it that way.
Chances are that Joe Biden, if he wins in November, would be a little less interested in Britain and a little frostier toward Boris Johnson. It’s pretty clear already that he’s far less enamored of Brexit.
If we are heading toward a Biden administration, Conservatives haven’t exactly started on the right foot. In introducing a bill that overrides parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol — specifically, the bit of the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement that is designed to preserve the achievements of the 1998 Belfast Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland — Johnson sure got Biden’s attention.
“Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period,” Biden tweeted Wednesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a similar message.
The reaction among some Tories was swift. Iain Duncan Smith, one of the stalwart Brexiters and a former Tory leader, snapped that Biden should worry more about “the need for a peace deal in the USA to stop the killing and rioting before lecturing other sovereign nations.” Others, including former Brexit minister David Davis, piled on too. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab traveled to Washington to smooth feathers, getting praise from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but only warnings from Democrats.
The current U.S. president is so unpopular in the U.K. that Johnson spent most of Trump’s last visit to the country avoiding being photographed with him. And yet, it’s easy to see why some Tories would miss him. Trump, the tireless Brexit cheerleader. Trump, who was practically campaigning for Boris Johnson while Theresa May was still hanging on to her job as prime minister. Trump, who promised to put Britain at the “head of the queue” for a trade deal after Barack Obama warned that Brexit would relegate it to the back of the line. When the putative leader of the free world love-bombs you to that extent, it’s hard not to be taken in.
Trump’s tough talk on crime also fits neatly with the Tories’ self-image as the party of law and order. His demonization of immigrants chimed with that undercurrent in the Brexit vote. Many Conservatives were taken aback by the strength of the protests following the George Floyd killing in May. While there was only sporadic violence in Britain, Conservatives, infuriated by the defacing of statues, related to Trump’s call for a more robust policing response in the U.S. and did the same in Britain.
There is no Democratic figure that speaks to Tories in the same way. Barack Obama’s relationship with former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had grown strained by 2016. The strongly pro-Irish sentiment in Congress and among Irish-Americans also rankles Conservatives who are used to ignoring Ireland.
Of course, if Biden wins, both sides would quickly bury the hatchet by inauguration day, not least because of the many policy synergies to build on.
On the virus, Johnson’s government would find itself far more aligned with a Biden administration. After early blunders made Britain one of the world’s worst performing countries in battling the pandemic, Johnson has been quick to impose new quarantines and lockdown measures, even over opposition from some Conservative quarters. Unlike Trump, whose interest in the virus extends only so far as he can blame his enemies for its effects, Biden’s plan is for exactly the kind of extensive test-and-trace policy that Johnson has been struggling to put in place.
On climate change, the U.K.’s commitment to a net-zero emissions target is so far from Trump’s stance on the subject that Britain would welcome the U.S. returning to international consensus. On geopolitics, it’s too simplistic to say that a Biden administration would revert to Obama-era policies on Iran, China or other issues. The world has changed in many ways. But on a range of issues there is likely to be a deeper discussion of strategy and coordination between Britain and the U.S.
Up to Johnson’s 2019 election win, the values agenda (socially conservative, populist) was the main driver of Tory politics. But when it comes to economic policy, the Tories and Democrats are not poles apart. Quite the contrary: The Conservative Party, with its strong manifesto commitment to bolstering Britain’s universal state-run health-care system and high levels of public spending, looks more at home with the Democratic Party than the GOP.
As for that vaunted U.S.-U.K. trade deal that Trump promised, it would be a positive for both, but it’s not the game-changer Brexiters or Trump suggested. And a President Biden, with his long legislative experience, might be in a better position to smooth Congressional approval once a deal is reached.
For all its usefulness in getting Brexit done and winning the last election, Trumpism cannot be the future of the Conservative Party. The Tories dissenting over the controversial new Brexit-related bill, and those who have criticized government policy on the pandemic, are sending a message that there is a limit to how far a government can ride on populist bluster and grandiose promises.
There is also a limit to how much chaos, governing incompetence, confusion and uncertainty people will take. The near simultaneous Brexit vote and Trump win in 2016 marked an era in which Anglo-American publics suspended disbelief; a Biden win would signal to Conservatives that those who fail to deliver can also be punished for it.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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