Boris Johnson’s Donald Dilemma

Boris Johnson’s Brexit drama has become a tale of two Donalds. On one side is a man much like himself – loud, brazen and unpredictable. On the other, quite a different character – ponderous, deliberate and concise. The former, Donald Trump, holds the ultimate prize for Mr Johnson, a lucrative UK/US trade deal. The latter, Donald Tusk – President of the European Council – is Boris’ Brexit adversary, but is a leader who shares many of his foreign policy ambitions. It’s an unenviable position for Britain’s top man – and one he must reconcile sooner rather than later.

As G7 leaders gathered in France last week, Mr Johnson’s Donald dilemma took centre stage. On the Trump front, Boris will have felt particularly optimistic ahead of the conference – the president, an avowed and vocal fan of Johnson, selected him for his first bilateral discussion. Weeks of mounting tension around Brexit foretold a less friendly exchange with Mr Tusk however, who Boris would also be meeting privately.

Free of the EU’s commercial strictures – members can’t sign unilateral trade deals – Mr Johnson envisages a plucky and fiercely independent post-Brexit Britain. Ambitious trade talks with the US speaks to this dream. The optics of his working breakfast with Trump were good: two relaxed leaders signalling agreement unfettered by European technocrats.  

In a world of soundbites, it was equally successful. Mr Johnson “is the right man for the [Brexit] job” and they would sign a “very big trade deal,” Trump effused. There was a more substantive announcement too – plans had been made for a joint US/UK “special relationship economic working group” to “develop market-oriented principles for economic growth”. 

None of this would’ve been possible had Britain still been ‘anchored’ at the ankle by the EU, the president added. If Mr Tusk was unhappy at that characterisation, he didn’t show it. He and Boris have been at loggerheads for weeks over stalled Brexit negotiations, with neither willing to budge on their demands. The diplomatic stalemate descended into name calling ahead of the conference, with each leader branding the other ‘Mr No-Deal’. 

Surprising, then, that the two sat happily together and outlined their areas of accord. The UK and EU are in “completely glutinous agreement” on most issues, Mr Johnson said, be it “free trade, or Russia, or Iran”. And herein lies the critical conundrum for Boris – he needs America and its commercial clout to soften the economic hit of Brexit, but he’s fundamentally aligned with Europe in opposing the bulk of US foreign policy.  

Indeed, spelling out the areas of UK/EU commonality, Mr Johnson might’ve been reading a laundry list of Trump’s diplomatic entanglements. A stalwart advocate of free trade, Boris joins European leaders in their condemnation of the US/China trade war. Mr Trump’s tariffs risk a “downturn in the global economy,” he said prior to the G7, adding his desire to see a dialling down in tensions. This forthright criticism became more of a squeaking quibble when the two met in person, as Boris advanced what he acknowledged to be only a “faint, sheeplike” objection to White House policy.

Mr Johnson is similarly disdainful of America’s stance on Iran – though it’s unclear whether he articulated this with Trump. Having unilaterally collapsed the US/Iran atomic deal, Washington is bent on punishing the Islamic Republic with ever greater sanctions. Aghast at America’s treatment of the Middle Eastern state – which had been complying with the agreement’s rules – Europe wants the punitive action to cease and for both parties to start talking. To this end, France offered a last-minute G7 invite to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. He held talks with French, German and British officials, but Mr Trump declined to see him, instead threatening “very violent force” if Iran didn’t change course.

Russia is another flashpoint of US/European tensions, with Boris once again backing his continental neighbours. A fan of the Eastern strongman, President Trump wants to see Vladimir Putin brought back into the G7 fold, having been suspended for Russia’s alleged annexation of Crimea. On climate change, also, London and Washington depart. Mr Johnson, a convinced advocate of joint action on global warming, has put environmentalism at the heart of his agenda. Mr Trump, on the other hand, seems to have little time for green policy, snubbing the conference’s principal climate change meeting.

But for all their policy disagreements, Boris knows a US trade deal might be his only hope in surviving the Brexit no-deal cliff edge. President Trump knows this too, however, and like any wily businessman, he’ll use every ounce of his negotiating leverage. Already talks have hit obstacles – American demands for Britain to open up its markets to GM crops and chlorine-washed chicken have played poorly in the UK, as did Trump’s signalled interest in offering up the NHS to US firms (a point he later rowed back on). 

Perhaps more fraught is Mr Johnson’s demand that the US open its own markets to British business. Lamb, beef, pork pies, peppers and alcohol are among the UK exports Boris identified as too heavily tariffed by America. A sworn protectionist, Trump is unlikely to back a removal of barriers intended to shelter US producers.         

But if Brexit Britain truly is to be a strong and sovereign trading nation, the prime minister will have to prove his mettle in negotiations. If not, he risks absolute failure: a UK that is simultaneously distant from Europe (despite mutual interests) and hamstrung by US commercial demands. Much rides on Boris’s surefootedness – if a careful path between the two Donalds can’t be tread, weakness and isolation awaits him and his country.