Britain’s hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States have all but evaporated unless there is a dramatic change of mind from Joe Biden, it emerged on Tuesday as Boris Johnson was holding face-to-face talks at the White House.
Johnson has previously viewed a bilateral free trade deal with the United States as a key Brexit victory, underscoring the prospects for unhindered UK exporters from the EU. But government insiders privately concede that they see little prospect of progress towards a one-on-one deal, as the Biden administration focuses on other priorities.
When Johnson was asked on Tuesday if he still hopes to secure a free trade deal with the United States by the next general election, paving the way for lower tariffs and a closer economic relationship, he said “we are going as fast as we can” but declined to confirm if it could be reached before 2024.
When the US president was asked about the prospects for a deal as the two met in the Oval Office, he said, “We’re going to talk a little bit about trade today and we’ll have to fix it. ”
The UK is now reportedly considering other options, including seeking to join the US-Canada-Mexico trade deal instead of entering into a bilateral deal with Washington.
A high-level government source said: “There are different ways to do this. The question is whether the US administration is ready. The ball is in the court of the United States. It takes two to tango. “
The government is said to have pointed out to the United States that after signing a series of recent bilateral agreements, Britain now has closer trade relations with Canada or Mexico than with the United States despite the saying special relationship.
Later in the bilateral talks, the couple exchanged gifts. Johnson gave Biden a signed copy of astronaut Tim Peak’s book Hello, is this Planet Earth ?, inscribed by Peake with the message: “I hope this book is a reminder of what we are fighting to save as our countries are fighting climate change together. .
Biden gave the Prime Minister a framed photo of them at the Carbis Bay G7 summit earlier this year – and a White House watch.
Johnson was keen to show the strength of his relationship with Biden during his trip to the US after a busy summer in which the UK appeared to be denied key information about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He said the US-UK partnership was at its strongest in “decades.”
Biden also stressed the importance of ensuring that peace in Northern Ireland is not compromised by post-Brexit tensions.
“I feel very strong,” he said. “We have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort in the United States. It was a major partisan effort, and I would hate to see – and many of my fellow Republicans either – a change in the Irish deal ”.
Speaking to U.S. broadcaster NBC on Tuesday, Johnson played down differences with Biden over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to the Taliban capturing Kabul and the chaotic evacuation.
When asked if he had been forced to wait 36 hours to speak directly to Biden about the situation in Afghanistan, he replied: “I am not discussing my appeals with other leaders but to the best of my ability. memories, we have spoken very frankly about all of this. . ”
Pressed to know if he agreed with Biden’s decision to set and respect a date for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, he said: “America has been here for 20 years and it is a respectable argument to say “enough is enough”. He added: “Could we have done things differently? Maybe we could.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who travels with Johnson, said she hopes to tie trade and diplomacy more closely in her new role, highlighting the potential for jobs in the UK through the security deal Aukus announced last week.
Trade was not among the issues Downing Street pointed out before the discussion between Johnson and Biden, who met in the Oval Office. Instead, the prime minister was to raise the climate crisis, Aukus, and the details of the new US travel regime.
The UK had appeared blinded by the travel announcement on Monday, Johnson warning reporters en route to the US that “I will not hold your breath” for this week’s developments.
As he arrived in Washington by train from New York, Johnson welcomed Biden’s announcement of a significant increase in US climate finance for developing countries, suggesting that the goal of 100 billion dollars (73 billion pounds sterling) fixed ten years ago could be reached before the summit of the Cop26. in November.
Biden told the United Nations general assembly that the United States will double its contribution from $ 5.6 billion to $ 11.2 billion. Johnson said the announcement “was a game-changer” and he wanted to see similar levels of ambition from other rich countries.
The US and UK have worked closely on climate, but little progress has been made in recent months on deepening trade ties. Biden only appointed chief agricultural trade negotiator Elaine Trevino last week and has yet to appoint a new ambassador to London. Agriculture would likely be a key part of any deal.
Meeting with Kamala Harris, the Vice President, before seeing Biden, the PM said there had been “real progress” on trade, citing the lifting of the “curious” US ban on British beef exports .
He also welcomed the US decision to double its contribution to climate finance. “Today was a big day for the world,” he said. Harris replied, “It was. “
Johnson will stay in Washington overnight and meet with a range of Congressional figures on Wednesday, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, fresh off a visit to Chorley’s constituency by her British counterpart, Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House. of the communes.
After the race to withdraw from Afghanistan, Tory MPs warned the PM that bilateral relations with the UK had been allowed to deteriorate since Biden’s election and urged him to deepen ties with the news White House.