Backstage in the White House: what is at stake for Boris Johnson?

Warm words and actions have paved the way for Boris Johnson’s first visit to the White House as prime minister. The US has said it will remove travel restrictions for UK citizens in November, while Johnson said the relationship between London and Washington was “as good as it has been for decades” and “genuinely terrific”.

However, the stakes are always high at such meetings, as a former senior Downing Street official explained to the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg: “When it goes wrong, it really does go wrong – one wrong move, one throwaway comment and months of planning and international diplomacy are in the bin.”

And No. 10 will be “conscious of how much it matters” amid the new set of world challenges, said Kuenssberg.

The prime minister will travel from the UN General Assembly in New York to Washington for the Oval Office meeting where he and Biden will have to “confront tensions over the handling of the withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan”.

Downing Street sources do not expect much progress on trade, saying American negotiators are “ruthless” as they play down expectations of things moving forward on that front.

Sky News’s US correspondent Mark Stone agreed, writing that “on that all-important post Brexit US/UK trade deal, do not hold your breath”. Johnson himself has managed expectations, saying: “The reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry.”

However, added Stone, there have been hints from Biden’s climate envoy that America will commit to funds for developing countries, a move called for by Johnson ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November, that the UK is hosting.

Even on this, the PM was dampening expectations, reported The Independent. He said that “we are not counting our chickens” that the US would give extra financial support to an initiative supporting developing countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Question marks remain over how affectionately Biden regards Johnson. Kuenssberg wrote that the “bonhomie” between Johnson and Biden was “visible” at the G7 in Cornwall in June.

But, pointed out The Guardian, Biden appeared notably warmer to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison when the three nations’ Aukus pact was announced last week. “Thank you, Boris,” he began. “And I want to thank that fellow down under. Thank you very much, pal. Appreciate it, Mr prime minister.”

A cautious atmosphere is likely to prevail. “First and foremost both sides will want Tuesday’s big meeting to go smoothly,” added Kuenssberg. “No gaffes, no misunderstandings, no embarrassments.”

Leslie Vinjamuri, the director of the US and the Americas programme at the Chatham House think tank, agreed, saying of Johnson that “it looks like he has decided to play the positive agenda, be strategic, and get the UK in the game”.

Attention to detail is considered important. In 2017, wrote Kuenssberg, Theresa May’s team was “worried about the menu – because the ribs on offer at the getting-to-know-you lunch might plaster barbecue sauce all over the then prime minster’s face during the huge TV moment”.

When David Cameron went to Washington, Barack Obama took the then PM to a college basketball game, putting Cameron under unfamiliar pressure when he had to give a half-time interview about the match on a “subject he knew nothing about”.

Little will be left to chance and even Johnson’s choice of transport for his journey to the meeting is strategic. The PM told The Times that rather than fly to their White House meeting, he hoped that his three-hour train ride to Washington would strengthen his bond with the “train nut” Biden, who was dubbed Amtrak Joe for his use of the line.


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