What will a Biden presidency mean for the UK?

Tomorrow, Americans will vote to elect their next president. With Democratic challenger Joe Biden leading in the polls, we offer our analysis on what a Biden presidency could mean for the UK.

If Joe Biden wins the race to become the 46th President of the United States, many capitals across Europe will breathe a sigh of relief. But not necessarily London.

Four years ago, when Donald Trump first entered the White House, many officials in Downing Street looked to him as an ally. Thanks to his endorsement of Brexit – coupled with the Democratic Party’s 2016 “back of the queue” stance – Trump appeared to be a safer bet for the UK pursuing its ambitions abroad and, importantly, securing a lucrative US-UK trade deal.

But if Biden wins the White House this week, Downing Street will need to get to work. And there will be a lot of work to do, since British officials have not been able to meet a single member of Biden’s foreign policy team as part of a campaign strategy to avoid any accusations of foreign interference.

This lack of contact has made it difficult for the UK government to plan for what might happen in the event of a Biden victory. With Brexit at the forefront of the government’s agenda, officials are concerned that momentum towards a US-UK trade agreement could be lost.

One of the main challenges to securing a trade deal is time. In the US, a law governing the ratification of trade deals will expire in July 2021. The Trade Promotion Authority allows the president to fast-track deals through Congress, but according to Congressional rules, a US-UK trade agreement must be in place by 1st April for it to be covered.

Racing against the clock, British officials are now working to draw up proposals that are more likely to win Biden’s approval, but the other known unknown is the composition of Congress itself. A new House of Representatives and a potentially different Senate will also affect how any trade deal progresses.

Another issue is Ireland. Biden is immensely proud of his Catholic upbringing and Irish roots and has done much to bolster his support amongst Irish-Americans in recent months. When John F Kennedy became president in 1960, the Irish-American vote became a potent force in American politics, particularly for the Democratic Party. And although its influence has since declined, approximately 1 in 10 Americans claim Irish descent, meaning that declaring ties to Ireland is still considered a vote-winner in America.

Biden is perhaps the most Irish-American president since Kennedy – a characteristic that is likely to be problematic for the UK. Crucially, he is committed to the Good Friday Agreement both electorally and in principle. Biden has already spoken out against the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which threatens to break the Northern Ireland protocol contained in the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement and challenge the legal force of agreed rules on customs arrangements and state aid. For many, it risks eroding trust between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, jeopardising protections against a hard border.

For Biden, a trade deal between the US and the UK “must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.” His unwavering commitment to peace in Ireland – and warning against the Good Friday Agreement becoming a “casualty of Brexit” – is likely to be a bigger priority for Biden than providing Johnson with the political cover of a convenient trade deal.

Ideologically, Biden’s outlook can be categorised as traditional Atlanticism, a foreign policy doctrine with US-EU relations at its heart. His priority from a transatlantic perspective will therefore be to rebuild relations with the EU first and foremost. This means that Biden is likely to follow Barack Obama’s lead in making Berlin his primary relationship in Europe. Out of the Brussels loop and with declining influence on the continent, the UK may see its chances of securing a swift trade deal with the US diminish.

But what does this all mean for the UK domestically? Johnson staked his political career on betting against the EU and so far, he has won. But failure to reach a trade deal with the US will be an embarrassing defeat for the government, threatening the UK’s status internationally and the government’s approval ratings at home.

The government will have to dial down its Brexit rhetoric – the very rhetoric that delivered Johnson’s “stonking” electoral win in 2019 – if it wants to establish relations with the Biden camp on a positive and sustainable footing. But Brexit is the cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s strategy in former ‘Red Wall’ seats; climbing down from this will do little to quash existing worries about holding onto these seats at the next General Election.

Regardless of how Americans vote tomorrow, the UK’s special relationship with the US will undeniably change. The UK may find itself occupying a much humbler position than previously –  possibly even at the “back of the queue.”

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehousecomms.com.