If there is one thing for which the UK can thank Donald Trump it is for the reminder that relationships between nations are transactional. Personal chemistry is useful but a president is always driven by his own analysis of national interest.
As Boris Johnson contemplates the possibility of a Joe Biden win and an unfriendly face in the Oval Office, the prime minister has reason for trepidation. The Democrat sees him as a British Trump, and Brexit as a foolish endeavour. This view has been entrenched by the threat to breach the EU withdrawal agreement, a move that displays a Trumpian disregard for international deals and kicks against the Good Friday Agreement, to which Mr Biden is deeply attached.
The hand-wringing can be overdone. While the UK may not be heading home with the Oscar for “best European friend”, there would be gains in a Biden win in the tilt back to traditional alliances, a commitment to multilateral bodies (on which countries outside major power blocs rely) and support for action on climate change. The UK’s chairmanship of the COP26 talks would be a chance to smooth relations with a Biden White House. In any case, the UK has found ways to remind even frosty presidents of its value before. The relationship’s foundation lies less in leadership bromances than in deep defence, economic and diplomatic ties.
And there is one more reason the Conservatives may have to be thankful for a Biden victory. It will help save Britain’s ruling party from itself.
A Trump win would have the effect of validating and encouraging some of the worst instincts of Mr Johnson’s party, proving to them that cultural conflict works, that erratic international tactics deliver and that history is on their side.
Mr Johnson does admire aspects of the Trump playbook. He has spoken approvingly of Mr Trump’s unconventional negotiating tactics, and respects his readiness to smash the Beltway consensus. But he is not Mr Trump. He takes the conventional view on the climate crisis and, for all the mistakes, has cleaved close to the scientific consensus during the pandemic.
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While not immune to wedge tactics, Mr Johnson has largely rebuffed those in his party, and inside Downing Street, who urge a full-on culture war. He has not yet surrendered to the nativist politics of those who revel in attacks on diversity, under the cover of speaking up for the white working class.
While there is a clear overlap, it is too simplistic to lump all Brexiters into this trend. Vote Leave leaders now inside Downing Street saw the Brexit party’s Nigel Farage as a toxic figure. But other Tories are exploiting fear of him to push a shared agenda. Thus, when Mr Farage stirred up anger over migrants crossing illegally from France it provoked a knee-jerk response. Home secretary Priti Patel will not let herself be outflanked on crime or immigration, and her brand of angry conservatism has traction with the activist base.
This highlights the precarious balance in Mr Johnson’s policies. He has inverted the Cameron agenda and fashioned a new platform around more active state intervention and more conservative social positions: these push back a little on what his voters see as progressive over-reach. Played carefully, this is also where the centre of British politics is located now.
The risk for him is twofold. The first is that, for all his clever positioning, this proves to be an incompetent government that lets down its supporters. As the disenchantment grows, so does the lure of nativism to mask failure. A Trump defeat will remind Mr Johnson of the limits of that strategy and reinforce mainstream Tories.
The second risk comes from tipping into prejudice and dehumanisation. Brexit has uncorked forces Mr Johnson will struggle to contain even if he wants to. This is how an attempt to respond to concerns over immigration became the Windrush scandal or a plan to ship asylum seekers off to the south Atlantic. There is a line between challenging a liberal consensus and dog-whistle politics. Tories have been punished before for being on its wrong side.
A Biden win will not upend the Johnson platform but it takes some wind from the nativist sails. It would reset the western policy consensus, whereas a Trump win would pull Britain further towards an Orbanite world view. (One need only study the party grouping the Tories occupy in the Council of Europe to grasp the odious far-right company they already keep abroad).
In the battle against the nativists, the value that Tories attach to the Atlantic alliance means a Biden win places a thumb on the scales on the side of the party’s better angels.
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