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LONDON — Joe Biden made little secret of his contempt for Brexit — but with the U.K. now out of the EU, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives find themselves converging with the U.S. president’s party on key issues.
The Democrats have always had an uneasy relationship with Brexit. In one of many miscalculations during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, David Cameron reportedly prevailed on Barack Obama to inform a U.K. audience that a vote to leave would mean going to “the back of the queue” for any potential trade deal. It was a threat that still rankles with many of those who voted Leave, or who simply thought it was unseemly for a foreign head of state to weigh in.
Biden, speaking in Dublin later the same year, said boldly: “We would have preferred a different outcome.” During the 2020 presidential campaign, both Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, felt moved to issue warnings over the treatment of Northern Ireland as the U.K. government threatened to row back on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
Yet the shift within the Conservative Party toward support for Brexit as an article of faith has, ironically, brought the party closer to Biden’s administration on several fronts. It lays the scene for a potential reset of bilateral relations at this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall after the unpredictability of the Trump years.
The most conspicuous movement on the U.K. side has been on China, away from the “golden era” of Sino-British relations cultivated under Cameron. In the distant days of 2015, then Chancellor George Osborne promised to be China’s “best partner” as he went after lucrative trade deals. On one occasion. President Xi Jinping joined Cameron for a pint in a pub near the prime minister’s Chequers residence.
The cooling-off began when the Brexit result ended Cameron’s premiership and cleared the path for a different approach under Theresa May. Influenced by her chief adviser Nick Timothy, she wavered over the Hinkley Point C nuclear power project, part-funded by a Chinese company, and refused to give blanket support to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
At the same time, two influential Conservative MPs, Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, founded the China Research Group. Ostensibly a caucus dedicated to better understanding of the country and its influence in the U.K., it helped mobilize a Sinoskeptic turn in the Conservative Party.
While the Sinoskeptics are themselves split between genuine skeptics and immovable hardliners, their influence can be seen in the government’s U-turn over China’s access to U.K. telecommunications and an attempt to block trade with countries found to have committed genocide. Their hand has only been strengthened since nine U.K. citizens — including five MPs — were banned from China.
Nusrat Ghani, one of those sanctioned, said: “The sanctions changed everything because it made people think ‘what the hell has she been going on about?’ There was just a huge amount of interest, much more than when I was trying to get people to understand the genocide amendment.”
While Ghani herself was elected in 2017 for the leafy, true-blue constituency of Wealden, south of London, the cause of holding China to account has proved popular among many of the new generation of Conservative MPs elected in 2019 for formerly Labour seats.
This is both because they represent more Muslim constituents, who are keen for them to lobby on Uyghurs’ rights, and because they feel enthused about Brexit as a chance to reexamine assumptions about the U.K.’s allegiances. In Ghani’s words: “As we go after new trade deals, whose values are we going to side with?”
More traditional, free-marketeer Tories regard this trend in the party as “completely over the top” — as one Conservative MP put it — and some suspect that Boris Johnson himself sympathizes with this view. One senior Conservative said they were “absolutely certain” he still sees himself as a sinophile, while an ex-minister accused the government of “dancing on this pinhead about what is and isn’t genocide.”
While China could be Biden’s most fruitful hunting ground for forging new U.K. relations at the G7, it’s not the only one. Johnson’s party has shown itself willing to apply moral pressure when it comes to Russia, even if it is not quite so marked a departure from previous form.
The Skripal poisonings hardened the Conservative stance on Russia and while questions remain over Tory donors with links to Russia, the government has been happy to introduce its own Magnitsky-style sanctions.
This hawkishness on China and Russia brings the U.K. into potential alignment with another U.S. foreign policy vision: that of a D10, or alliance of democracies. Biden is keen on the project, as is John Bew, a history professor who joined the No 10 policy unit under Johnson and was the author of the government’s Integrated Review on foreign and security policy. The G7 summit itself will be something of a rehearsal with the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India invited to join the party in Cornwall.
Paul Goodman, editor of the Conservative Home website and a former MP, said: “I’m not sure if they agree about the methods or if they’ve thought it through particularly carefully. What do you do if you put France and Germany and Italy in there — have you got to put the whole EU in? But there is that link as they [the U.S. and U.K.] are all quite keen on it.”
On other matters too, the two parties are closer than they have been in the past. The modern Conservative Party is more sanguine about tackling climate change from the top-down than ever before. In Goodman’s view, Johnson’s current efforts to project himself as a scourge of climate change ahead of COP26 are being coordinated with one eye on the U.S. “He’s gone very green, and I’m pretty sure he’s got Biden in the back of his mind when he’s doing that.”
Equally, the government is warming up to the idea of regulating big tech companies with the introduction of the draft Online Safety Bill, even if you agree with the words of one U.S. relations watcher in the Tory Party who claimed: “Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. has understood the question — they’re still trying to regulate as if they were dealing with Playboy [magazine].”
The U.K. government’s position on state spending is currently hard to read. While it has made dramatic interventions to deal with the pandemic, the Treasury has been keen to signal this type of outlay will not last forever and has dug its heels in, despite fierce opposition, on cutting back foreign aid and allocating a fraction of the amount recommended by its own adviser on education recovery.
Again, there is a conflict here between archetypal economic Conservatives, eager for the party to maintain its reputation for prudence, and newer MPs representing areas of high deprivation who see social justice as a priority – and may find themselves more aligned to a Biden-esque vision of pandemic recovery, with certain state benefits phased out more slowly or not at all.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak had been cagey on the subject of a global corporate tax until late last week, when he was able to bask in the reflected glory of an agreement in principle between G7 countries on the minimum rate following talks chaired by the U.K.
While the groundwork has thus been laid for something of a love-in at the G7, it is not all because of converging ideology. There is also a pragmatic dimension, as both administrations endeavour to steady the ship after the turbulence of the Trump years.
Peter Ricketts, a crossbench peer and former senior diplomat, said it was “a piece of good fortune” that the U.K. has the G7 chair this year and it will be Biden’s first visit to Europe as president. “The government will use it to say this shows the importance of the ‘special relationship,’ but will also showcase that we’ve now got a U.S. president who can command respect from European leaders and we can make constructive policy together.”
The convergence in some key areas and desire for stability will not be enough to mask the points of real difference between the Johnson and Biden administrations. Rather, the course correction could end up highlighting those areas where Washington and London are very much not singing from the same hymn sheet.
The U.K.’s cuts to foreign aid stand in contrast to Biden’s recently announced budget plans, and while the focus on girls’ education at the G7 is presumably intended to minimize tension, it may instead serve to spotlight it. Observers from the world of international development and members of Johnson’s party alike have warned the reduction in the aid budget could weaken the U.K.’s hand in its diplomatic efforts at the G7 and COP26, particularly on arguing for tougher emissions targets.
Hanging over all of this is the Northern Ireland protocol, the mechanism introduced in the Brexit deal to keep Northern Ireland in the single market for goods and enforce EU customs rules at its ports. Senior officials close to Biden have let his support for the border arrangement be known, even as the U.K. government describes it as “unsustainable.” All eyes will be on the president at the G7 for any indication of whether he intends to lean further into that position or can act as a more even-handed broker in the quest to preserve the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement.
Johnson will be hoping that his conversations with Biden can focus on areas of renewed agreement, and remaining Brexit tensions can be swept under the carpet for another day.
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