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The ties that bind

The ties that bind

It’s no secret that Joe Biden’s White House has little time for Boris Johnson. But while the prime minister’s cosy relationship with Donald Trump and his Brexit-style nationalism have hardly endeared him to the new president, it’s not totally implausible that the two leaders could forge a good working relationship, over one issue in particular


At the start of this week, the New York Times published a report titled ‘Behind the lines of Britain’s Covid war’. It was a vivid portrait of grief, loss and exhaustion across the hospital wards and care homes, the funeral services and cemeteries of the UK. The photographs and video were by Andrew Testa, in fact they reminded me of Jonathan Williamson’s photo essay on a patient’s progress that was done for us last July, but what Andrew Testa captured was the sense of that onslaught inside the NHS; and seven months after I wrote ‘Britain’s disease’ for Tortoise, Alan Cowell of the New York Times had reportage for this piece that told it better. It captured the psychological toll of the UK’s exceptional death rate in individual terms. There was one man who in February had lost his younger brother and said simply: “It breaks you from the inside.”

After the piece ran, there was a fair bit of commentary about it and some people asked why had it fallen to the New York Times to hold the mirror up to our country? Why was it the New York Times that told the unflinching story of Britain’s sorry claim to have the highest per capita death toll of any large country in the world. There were others on the other hand, who pointed to the paper’s critical coverage last year of the development of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine, who pointed to the reporting on London’s crumbling infrastructure, headlined ‘London’s bridges really are falling down’, and then who pointed to ‘Behind the lines of Britain’s Covid war’ and asked: does the New York Times have it in for Britain?

Of course, neither view is entirely fair. Plenty of journalists in the UK have told this story; and the New York Times doesn’t have an editorial line on Britain. But, given the paper’s place in shaping America’s view of the world, its reporting matters. I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and this week I’ve been thinking about how Britain is shifting, some might say sinking, in the eyes of Americans.

Let’s start with one American in particular. The president. I can’t remember a time when a British prime minister has been quite so unpopular within the walls of the White House. Those in the Biden circle say the president’s top team have no time for Boris Johnson. The Biden multilateralists are generally no fans of Brexit-style nationalism. Joe “I’m Irish” Biden is worried about the implications for the Good Friday Agreement. The Biden team describe Johnson as a Trump suck-up who now, laughably, is trying to smarm up to the new president with a volley of green promises, framed in the Bidenspeak of “Build Back Better”. And Kamala Harris, the vice president who is said to see a good deal of politics in terms of culture and identity, is not going to have much truck for the woke-bashing that comes from some of the reactionary cadres in Johnson’s cabinet.

The Democrats, more generally, are in no hurry to pass a UK-US trade deal. Not because they’re particularly hostile to Britain and Brexit, but because they don’t want to squander political capital on the increasingly divisive issue of trade. So, according to those on Capitol Hill, there’s little prospect of the US-UK trade deal making its way through Congress any time in the next couple of years. That’s another Brexit hope dashed. 

To be fair, Boris Johnson may not be as far down the Biden pecking order as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, but nor are we living during those times when George W. Bush had Tony Blair to stay at his home in Crawford, Texas, or when Barack Obama invited David Cameron to the college basketball game in Dayton, Ohio. These days, the British prime minister and the US president don’t so much have a special relationship, as no relationship.

We should never underestimate the ability of politicians to charm each other. When Boris Johnson gets together with Joe Biden, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson’s warmth, humour and genuine love of America go a long way to forging a much better relationship with the new president. And a friend of Mr Biden’s says the adage that people use to describe the hail-fellow, well-met president is this: “I’m Irish. I don’t bear grudges. I have people who do that for me.” 

But the White House now says that if Covid restrictions are still in place, Mr Biden may not come to the UK for what would be his first planned overseas trip to attend the G7 summit on 11 June in Cornwall. Well, this is a hunch – and it’s not sourced – but if the data looks good and the May local elections are out of the way, might Mr Johnson quite well want to lift the last remaining restrictions ten days ahead of schedule to make the G7 the moment that marks his and Brexit Britain’s new beginning on the international stage?

Either way, whether Mr Biden is on stage or on screen, the question for the UK is what will now bind London and Washington. COP26 in Glasgow is what Johnson and his team initially thought would endear the UK to Mr Biden, a president with an ambitious climate agenda. Perhaps. But every country in the world, it seems, is peddling their sustainable vision, every country has their version of building back better. Britain may be a useful ally in the climate crisis, but it’s certainly not the only one – and certainly not the most important.

All of which leads me to another piece I read this week: John Sawers, the former head of MI6, wrote for Tortoise on “How to build a post-Covid world order” that ensures the gathering competition between the US and China doesn’t spill into conflict. And as he describes an emerging world of democratic alliances, it made me think: how might that affect the UK and the US relationship? Because he set out a world of two Quads: one in the West, one in the East, i.e. the European Quad – Germany, France, the UK and the US – and the Asian Quad – Japan, India, Australia and the US. And here’s what he said: “There is scope for these two Quads to come together. Biden’s call for an Alliance of Democracies and Boris Johnson’s plan to expand the G7 which he is hosting this year to a D10 – a Summit of Democracies – are moves in this direction”. This is not new institution building; it’s deliberate diplomacy around the shared values of democracy.

The project that binds Biden and Johnson – the one that goes beyond the pandemic and populism too – is democracy and human rights. Biden has shown it already in his dealings with Saudi and Russia. Johnson with China over Hong Kong. These are the ties that can – and should – bind. In fact, it may not just be idealistic, it might actually be canny, opportunistic realpolitik to imagine a renewed US-UK relationship based on the principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.