Dispatch

Why a Biden Win Is Bad News for Boris Johnson

By casting his lot with Trump, the U.K. prime minister now looks like yesterday’s man. He is in for a rude awakening.

U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON—The United States’ cultural dominance isn’t always benign. The election of Donald Trump told trashy politicians across the world that they could lie continuously, tear up conventions, smash up their countries, and—far from being punished by their electorates—they would win.

Shakespeare’s Richard III complains he must “clothe my naked villainy” and “seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Trump taught leaders from Brazil to Hungary they no longer needed to pretend to be saintly. However basely they behaved, their base would applaud them. No one learned the lesson better than Britain’s Boris Johnson.

With Joe Biden on the path to victory, the British prime minister now looks like yesterday’s man. The spirit of the age has left him behind, and he seems a relic of a discredited past. This change in culture will matter more than any political change in formal Anglo-American relations.

LONDON—The United States’ cultural dominance isn’t always benign. The election of Donald Trump told trashy politicians across the world that they could lie continuously, tear up conventions, smash up their countries, and—far from being punished by their electorates—they would win.

Shakespeare’s Richard III complains he must “clothe my naked villainy” and “seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Trump taught leaders from Brazil to Hungary they no longer needed to pretend to be saintly. However basely they behaved, their base would applaud them. No one learned the lesson better than Britain’s Boris Johnson.

With Joe Biden on the path to victory, the British prime minister now looks like yesterday’s man. The spirit of the age has left him behind, and he seems a relic of a discredited past. This change in culture will matter more than any political change in formal Anglo-American relations.

Living in the U.K., it has been dispiriting to watch how quickly Trumpian tactics were accepted as normal. Johnson suspended Britain’s supposedly sovereign Parliament in an attempt to push Brexit through, threatened the independence of the judiciary, and said he would break international law by renouncing a treaty he signed with the European Union if he did not get his way. Trump said of Johnson in 2019, “They call him Britain’s Trump and people are saying that’s a good thing.”

When then U.S. President Barack Obama warned Britain against leaving the EU in 2016, Johnson sounded like a birther, suggesting that Obama was no friend to this country because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” More recently, faced with a deadly pandemic, Johnson may not have embraced the pseudo-scientific claptrap of the U.S. president, but his failure to deal with COVID-19 has been almost as egregious.

One can exaggerate Johnson’s affinity with Trump. When it comes to foreign policy, the British Conservatives have been closer to the Democrats than the Republicans. They continue to support Obama’s deal with Iran, and say they are concerned about climate change, although whether they are prepared to take the hard decisions to combat it is another matter.

But ever since it started to become clear that Obama’s vice president was likely heading to the White House, something close to panic has gripped Downing Street.

The fantasy world of “the Anglosphere” has become the never-never land of the British right-wing imagination. Britain could leave the EU and join an English-speaking bloc led by the United States, or so the story ran, and build a pact with its true friends.

With Biden as president, Washington may not even give Britain the fast-track trade deal that Brexit supporters pretended could compensate for the loss of the vastly more significant trade with the EU.

Meanwhile, Biden and the U.S. Congress’s determination to stop Johnson building a hard border on the island of Ireland will mean that Dublin’s voice will carry more weight in Washington than London’s—a reversal of 800 years of English dominance of Ireland.

Britain will have abandoned its European alliance while failing to secure an American alliance. Its isolation will be painful—and painfully obvious.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the London Observer and the author of “What’s Left?: How the Left Lost Its Way.” Twitter: @NickCohen4

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