In Biden's Oval Office, Boris Johnson's big Brexit promise slips away

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office in Washington on Sept 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked up a trade deal with the United States as one of the major prizes of his campaign for Brexit. Sitting in the Oval Office on Tuesday (Sept 21), it was clear he 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," US President Joe Biden told reporters at the start of his meeting with Mr Johnson, when asked about the prospects for an agreement.

The lukewarm response comes after Mr Johnson himself tried to downplay expectations of progress.

On the plane to New York, he told reporters Mr Biden has "a lot of fish to fry" and did not have time to negotiate. He also hinted to Sky News he does not expect an agreement before the next British general election, due in 2024.

Then, hours before Mr Johnson's meeting with Mr Biden, came a major strategy shift.

A source familiar with the matter said Britain is exploring joining an existing free trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada, a recognition that the Biden administration will not start talks on a bespoke deal any time soon.

Yet even that idea is fraught with political risk for Mr 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, Mr Johnson criticised then President Barack Obama's warning that Britain would be "at the back of the queue" for a US trade deal if it voted for Brexit.

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

Still a priority

"We are still keen to agree a US-UK trade deal," Mr Johnson's spokesman Max Blain told reporters in Washington. "That still remains a priority."

Mr Johnson, who was born in the US, is acutely aware of the British media's obsession with the "special relationship", which was immortalised by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But his relationship with Mr Biden has been far from smooth and there were reminders of why in their opening remarks, especially on Brexit. The US President has long been critical, especially over its impact on Northern Ireland, and he warned Mr 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 British government was left blindsided by the US handling of the chaotic pullout amid little consultation with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies.

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 US-UK security interests. The two leaders also discussed China and Russia in their meeting and agreed to approach the issue based on "shared values", the British side said.

And earlier on Tuesday, Mr Biden delivered on one of Mr Johnson's key priorities: securing more US funding to help poorer nations fight climate change. Britain hosts the next round of global climate talks starting late next month.

'Real lead'

"It's fantastic to see the US stepping up and providing a real, real lead," Mr Johnson said after Mr Biden's announcement to double America's commitment.

Britain hopes the US move will spur other nations to reach the US$100 billion (S$135.3 billion) annual funding target, and on Wednesday, Mr 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-19, if you want an example of gloomy scientists being proved right - and to understand who we are and what we are doing."

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

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