Barring a much bloodier insurrection than the one mounted two weeks ago, Joe Biden will assume the presidency of the United States on Wednesday. Where does that leave the UK?
Britain has long prided itself on its special relationship with the US, choosing to overlook the fact that the US tells France that is its oldest ally, that it has a strategic partnership with Israel and so on. For many Leavers, focusing on the Anglosphere was a central rationale for Brexit.
So striking a new trade deal with the US after Brexit was a top priority. Hence the fury when Barack Obama suggested during the referendum that Britain would be “back of the queue”. And when Donald Trump was elected president, Leavers fell over themselves to ingratiate themselves with him.
Nigel Farage energetically campaigned for Donald Trump, describing him last October as “the single most resilient and brave person I have ever met in my life.” He bet £10,000 that Donald Trump would win last year. Many other Leavers placed losing bets on Donald Trump.
Michael Gove gave Donald Trump an interview so unchallenging that it could have doubled as an advertorial. Afterwards, they posed together grinning and giving thumbs-up.
Iain Duncan Smith insisted before the Brexit referendum, in the teeth of the evidence, that he understood Donald Trump was: “a very decent man”. He saw his election as an opportunity: “to engage the new administration and remind them of our enduring friendship in good times and in bad.” He was “certain of this: when our two nations are together the world is a safer place.”
(Sadly, he was less enthusiastic after Joe Biden was elected in November, warning that Brexit “has nothing to do with him”. How he reconciled his wish to see Joe Biden butt out with nurturing the enduring friendship was left unspecified.)
Jacob Rees-Mogg was even clearer. He indicated before the 2016 election result that he would have voted for Donald Trump. In 2018 he said that “It is our national good fortune that the president with whom we will develop this new arrangement is Mr Trump.”
Boris Johnson had previously called Donald Trump “stupefyingly ignorant”, which is perhaps why he over-compensated, going as far as to say: “I don’t see why he’s any less of a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama who got it before he even did anything”.
We’ve just endured four turbulent years, during which time senior Leavers fell over themselves to suck up to Donald Trump. But there was no trade deal between the UK and the US. Donald Trump is now utterly discredited. And at the end of his one term, the US looks like a country that will be unusually consumed by domestic strife for some years and is led by a president who has a record of expressing concern about the wilder fringes of the Brexiteers.
Leavers who passionately want a trade deal with the US have just found that they’ve been washed down the drain, and like the itsy-bitsy spider, they’re going to have to start again. You sense, however, that like Iain Duncan-Smith they don’t have the same appetite to do so as before.
Now, imagine for a moment that you are Joe Biden. You’re dealing with a country that placed all its eggs in one basket, with your opponent, and all to no avail. You know that its current government is not short of people who are distressed that you won. You don’t trust any of them. What do you do?
I don’t know about you, but I would work on the basis that the British government has an urgent need to show that it hasn’t been following a completely losing strategy. If you’re ambitious, you might look to strike an extremely unequal trade agreement, and rely on them to sell it to the British public as a triumph. If you don’t have the time or energy for such a large project (I suspect Joe Biden doesn’t), there are no doubt smaller public concessions or errands that you can extract from them as a signal that they had regained a measure of the king’s favour. And while Donald Trump contented himself with flummery, Joe Biden – a career-long machine politician – is likely to want much more useful forms of obeisance.
Britain is distinctly lacking in options just now. It has torched its relationship with the EU and it is at loggerheads with China. It has to start salvaging relationships somewhere. So Britain can expect to see members of its government abase themselves yet again before the US and this time with some very tangible costs. Try not to choke too much on the humble pie.