Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicated he doesn’t expect to secure the free-trade agreement he seeks with the U.S. before the next U.K. general election due in 2024.
A trade deal with the U.S. was billed as one of the prizes of Brexit, so Johnson is under pressure to prove the biggest upheaval in British foreign policy in fifty years was worth it. As far back as 2016, then-President Barack Obama had cautioned Britain it would be “at the back of the queue” for an agreement.
Speaking ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Tuesday, Johnson declined to comment when asked by Sky News if an agreement could be reached before the election.
“We will keep going with free trade deals around the world including in the United States,” he said. “But the Americans do negotiate very hard.”
Earlier, Johnson told reporters traveling to the U.S. with him that Biden has too many domestic priorities to find time to negotiate a trade deal with the U.K.
“The reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry,” he said, referring to the president’s $3.5 trillion tax and social spending package. “I would much rather get a deal that really works for the U.K. than get a quick deal.”
Johnson meets Biden at a delicate juncture in international relations. A three-way deal to supply nuclear submarines to Australia announced last week has reinforced the idea of a special bond, underpinned by U.S.-U.K. security interests, even as the move infuriated the French.
A dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the meeting with Biden will do nothing to dampen French anger at the deal that supplanted its longstanding submarines contract. Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain denied the U.K. is expecting the French to retaliate.
Johnson also has a number of other tricky topics with which he needs help from the U.S., including the crisis in Afghanistan and, especially, how to accelerate momentum behind a stumbling global climate change summit, known as COP26, that the U.K. will host in Scotland next month.
The U.K. is focused on delivering on the promise made at a 2009 summit in Copenhagen, and renewed in Paris in 2015, that poorer nations were to receive $100 billion per year from 2020 to help them cut carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. But wealthy nations are stalling in their efforts. Biden’s stance will be critical to persuade others to follow suit.
The British delegation to the UN was cheered by comments from John Kerry, U.S. special envoy for climate, who told reporters, “I think we’re going to get it done by COP.”
“The U.S. will do its part,” Kerry said. “I’m not hoping. I’m telling you to stay tuned to the president’s speech.” Biden addresses the UN General Assembly on Tuesday morning in New York.
“Watch what the president has to say,” Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday. “I haven’t seen it yet, but there is a very different mood in Washington about that issue that is crucial for the U.K. and for the rest of the world.”
Johnson also denied the U.K. is being kept out of the loop, including on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The prime minister also appeared to be taken by surprise on Monday when Biden announced he was lifting a travel ban for U.K. citizens to visit the U.S.
“I think that the relations between the U.K. and the U.S. are about as good as they’d been for a very long time,” he told the BBC.
Johnson’s meeting with Biden will come under close scrutiny—not only because of the U.K. media’s obsession with the “special relationship” immortalized by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There’s also the political ghost of Donald Trump, who openly admired Johnson but humiliated his predecessor, Theresa May.
But with few opportunities for face-to-face meetings during the pandemic, the Conservative British leader has been unable to deploy his famous charm on the Democrat in the White House.
“You know, it hasn’t been a relationship that’s been very long in gestation,” Johnson told reporters en route to the U.S. “But it’s terrific, I mean genuinely terrific. We see eye-to-eye on all sorts of things. Have we bonded over any particular thing? He’s a bit of a train nut, as am I.”