Boris Johnson stakes future on Donald Trump after Brexit
It is a moment the UK Prime Minister has cherished since childhood. And, in the eyes of many Brits, he has gambled the UK’s future to achieve it.
Since becoming PM, Johnson has had one goal: to get the UK out of the European Union, a message he has hammered home this week in meetings with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In Biarritz, he will also meet with US President Donald Trump, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Johnson’s moment in the sun will come when, if as expected, he and Trump unveil their much-hyped steps to a post-Brexit trade deal.
It will be a handy trophy of sorts, which is intended to dazzle British voters and convince them that, despite the advice of the government’s own civil servants and experts, Brexit will benefit the British economy.
All of which will soon be hugely important as Johnson faces a looming challenge to his leadership and a general election.
While Brexit is the talk of diplomats and business leaders the world over, little mention is being made of his apparent bet on America, the presidency of Trump, and all that entails.
To side with America rather than the EU, as Johnson has been showing recently, risks committing the UK to far more than Brexit.
Johnson is a risk-taker: while his gamble on Trump might benefit him today, it also risks breaking Britain, splitting the four-nation Union, and potentially putting it on the wrong side of emerging geopolitical fault lines.
The reasons are relatively straightforward: the world has changed a lot since the Brexit vote in 2016.
Indeed it is a very different place than it was when former prime minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership in 2013.
However while the world has moved on, Euroskeptics have not.
Clash of the titans
Trump won the US presidential election a few months after Brexit and has subsequently shown that America is not the reliable ally it once was.
He has picked fights with friends, Germany, Canada, France, and even the UK, while mollycoddling dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. This week, in an extraordinary move even by his own unpredictable standards, he dissed Denmark, dumping out of an upcoming state visit, deeming it no longer worthwhile because it won’t sell him Greenland.
Trump is utterly undependable, but it is in the case of China that he most threatens the post-Brexit calculus.
The Asian superpower is coming of age, inevitably challenging the United States. China believes its technology sector should have a fair shake at dominating and appears willing to endure a bitter trade war with Trump to achieve it.
A clash of these titans is on the horizon, and neither can be relied on to act in a way that might have been imagined five years ago.
If Johnson wants a taste of what this could ultimately look like, he needs to look beyond the uplifting platitudes of fast trade deals with the US that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, promised during his visit to London earlier this month.
Betting the bank on US
If Johnson looks to Hong Kong and listens to the threats thrown at the UK by Beijing, he won’t hear anything remotely friendly. Any wish to have a fruitful trade deal with China is exactly that — a wish.
China is on the way up and, thanks to Trump’s trade war, the world is heading for an us-versus-them universe.
There will be two camps, pro-America; pro-China, and Johnson appears to be betting the bank on America.
The recent clashes over Chinese technology firm Huawei was a harbinger of issues that lie ahead.
Bolton’s trip to London and Johnson’s apparent backtracking on allowing the Chinese tech giant to build part pf the UK’s 5G network is one of several signals that the UK is tilting towards Trump.
The week before he took office, Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s former foreign secretary, said Britain would look to EU allies to provide security for British tankers under threat in the Persian Gulf.
Hours into office, Johnson turfed Hunt out of the job and gave it to his hardline Brexiteer colleague, Dominic Raab.
Raab has wasted little time reversing Hunt’s words, thrusting Britain into America’s willing arms to help it — not following the EU lead in securing shipping in the important oil transit waters just off the coast of Iran.
It’s what America wants, and so, it seems, does Johnson, despite Gibraltar, a UK overseas territory, refusing to accede to US demands to hand over an Iranian oil tanker temporarily impounded there.
He has succeeded in convincing the country and the EU he’ll leave the 28 nation alliance on 31st of October, “do or die.”
Bolton says America will support the UK. Of course he did — Trump wants the EU to be as weak as possible.
But it’s worth asking the question, is Johnson siding with America simply to make the EU take his no-deal threat more seriously? Or is he really throwing the UK’s lot in with America.
Out in the cold
If the latter, where does that leave the UK, post-Brexit?
While the EU is far from homogeneous in its view of Trump’s America — Poland, Hungary and some of Italy’s leaders are big fans — Germany and France fear his protectionist anti-EU policies.
In China’s eyes, the EU may look less like an economic threat than America. Any EU nation will be able to maintain an ambiguous relationship, warm and fuzzy with Trump if they like, but when dealing with China benefiting from the collective bargaining power that the EU brings to trade deals.
Should Johnson deliver Brexit, the UK would be out in the cold and at the mercy of an unpredictable US President than might seem to be the case as Johnson bigs up his time with Trump at the G7.
Johnson would do well to look at the legacy of another prime minister, Tony Blair. Blair was popular and had a huge majority (which Johnson does not) until he got caught up in former US President George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq war.
Blair lasted 10 years, five of them after the invasion of Iraq. If Johnson gets his gamble wrong, 10 months in office could seem like a stretch, leaving the UK paying the price long after he is forgotten.