In the run up to 2019’s Conservative landslide, Boris Johnson stepped out before a rapturous crowd, the Prime Minister’s backers in full view behind the pulpit. ‘Get Brexit Done’ signs occupied every inch of available airspace, held aloft in pride. It was eerily familiar. Donald Trump’s feverish strain of politics had pulled off the impossible in 2016. He’d won. By a razor thin margin, yes, but Hillary Clinton would not be president as so many had assumed. A hardline anti-immigration, nativist dog whistle campaign full of untruths and scandal had made a reality TV star the most powerful man in the world. What America does, the world follows. That includes the United Kingdom.
And so, Johnson embarked upon a campaign that many believed to be style over substance. It didn’t matter how we’d get a good Brexit; we just would. This deal was ‘oven ready’. The Prime Minister was to shepherd us from the dungeons of the European Union into a brave and bountiful new world; the equivalent of his own big and beautiful wall project (the one that was never actually built on America’s southern border, much like the infamous Garden Bridge during Johnson’s tenure as London’s mayor).
Emulating this method was successful. The British electorate awarded the Conservatives a thumping majority. Despite the lies, the allegations of extramarital affairs, the avoidance and intimidation of a free press, the comparison of Muslim women to letterboxes, the homophobic slurs of “tank-topped bum boys”, the recital of racist colonial poetry in former British colonies, Johnson had done it. British Trumpism had made it across the pond.
Although it made sense electorally to cosy up to Trump, it also made sense diplomatically: the special relationship was now essential. We’d turned our backs on European neighbours for a potential friend over the pond – one we needed – and they’d welcomed us with open arms. "He's a good guy," said Trump of the Prime Minister in 2019. "He's a friend of mine."
But friends don’t tend to stick around in politics. Just yesterday evening, the American electorate made Trump a one-term president (the first since 1989) in a rebuke to his divisive style. Millions still voted Republican, but millions more voted Democrat. Johnson has reason to be concerned. According to a report by Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, “the chemistry between leaders does matter”, with an inside source suggesting that Biden finds the concept of Brexit “nuts”, and believes the British government to be “a little too like Trump’s for his liking”. The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland argued that “defeat for Trump would signal that the populist fever had broken, that the 2016 nationalist sweat was starting to cool.” And, Foreign Policy stated that by Boris “casting his lot with Trump”, he now “looks like yesterday’s man”.
The last four years have been long. They have been divisive. In fact, so frequent were these ideological clashes that they almost felt normal. And, perhaps this is the New Normal: a political landscape with a middle ground flooded by conflict. We’re no longer surprised by marches of the far right in Westminster. The absurd conspiracy theories of QAnon have travelled from the internet’s basement to your neighbour’s front doorstep. The murder of Black people at the hands of US police officers feel like a feature, not a bag – and the ensuing roots feel inevitable. These ills have long blighted our world, but Trump has exacerbated them: there are “fine people on both sides” of the argument, white nationalists included.
These circumstances seemed to lift the right-wing all over the world. But when its chief fire starter (and perhaps its chief architect too) is booted from office, the populists that have followed suit should be alarmed. Although the Tories refute the idea, they voted, en masse, against an amendment to protect the NHS in future post-Brexit trade deals. That’s because Trump wanted to make money from our healthcare. When Twitter exploded over the idea of chlorinated chicken arriving fresh from US battery farms, it took the government almost four years to promise a block on weakly regulated fresh produce. That’s because Trump wanted to make money from our stomachs. When an economy is bruised by a withdrawal from the world’s largest trading bloc, only to then receive a battering by a global pandemic, it made fiscal sense for Boris to bow down to the deep-pocketed but deeply alarming ally.
It may have been for nothing. According to a report in the Financial Times, Downing Street has not been afforded a single meeting with Biden’s foreign policy team. We’re not a priority. And the controversy of the Irish Backstop – a feature of the UK-EU Brexit negotiations to prevent a hard border in Ireland – is personal for Biden. He is proud of his Irish ancestry, the Good Friday Agreement was partly brokered by a fellow Democratic president in Bill Clinton, and the new president-elect openly endorsed a letter from one of his advisers that promised an end to a US-UK trade deal if international agreements were broken. It is now a certainty that Biden will lead this future trade deal, if it materialises at all.
Sowing division may’ve won Trump the White House. Now, it may’ve lost him it too. And as allies cooled on the reality TV star’s authoritarian approach, Johnson encouraged it; copied it, even. Biden’s victory doesn’t quite mean the end for the British Prime Minister. The supporters may still shower the Conservatives with praise and glory. But as the applause rings out at the next televised rally, it remains to be seen how far they’ll carry around the world. Less certain still is if the world will even bother to tune in.
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