Skip to main content

US elections 2020: How Boris Johnson could follow Donald Trump out of office

The UK prime minister allied himself with the Republican president – and, with Brexit looming, his own position is in doubt
UK PM Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump at the NATO summit near London in December 2019 (AFP)

This week’s US presidential election has not just been a conventional contest between the Republicans and the Democrats. It has also been an existential contest between Joe Biden's Democrats and Donald Trump's anti-Democrats; a contest between the candidate who valued the rule of law – and the candidate who breaks the rules.

That’s why the result – supposing that Joe Biden has won - is more than a killer blow to Trump.

It’s also a bruising setback to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an existential disaster for Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the outcome was fervently desired by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

"
US President Donald Trump is confronted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders at a G7 summit in Canada in June 2018 (German government handout)

Here in Britain, it’s hard to overstate how profound the consequences will be. Allies of Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been trying to send out signals that they would welcome a Biden presidency.

This is simply damage limitation. On Wednesday, 10 Downing Street confirmed that Johnson has never met Biden. Incredible. In Washington, foreign diplomats have struggled to gain access to the Biden team.

The brutal truth is that the departure of Trump is a devastating blow to Johnson’s Conservative government.

Johnson's war on Conservatism

Johnson needed a Trump victory because it gave such weight to his own political project, which is likewise defined by nationalism, isolationism and a contempt for conventional behaviour.

Johnson will be the only leader of Western liberal democracies who systemically favours boorish behaviour

There was yet another example of this from Johnson on Wednesday when, in gross disregard of parliamentary convention, he left the Commons chamber just as his predecessor Theresa May stood up to speak. Johnson was later obliged to send a “note of apology”.

With Trump dispatched by Biden, Johnson will be the only leader of Western liberal democracies who systemically favours such boorish behaviour.

Johnson has governed quite deliberately by emulating the - now apparently defeated - Trump model. This involved deep hostility towards liberalism. Like Trump, Johnson has repeatedly shown himself hostile to representative democracy and the rule of law.

What is less understood is that Johnson is also hostile to what used to be known as Conservatism.

In a brilliantly argued article in the New York Times last week, Bret Stephens analysed how Trump had led the Republican Party in a war against traditional conservative values. Guided by his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, Johnson has done the same. The two blond bombshells are, in many ways, very similar. And that should surprise no one.

"
US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have always enjoyed a strong relationship (AFP)

Again and again, Britain and the US have trended in the same direction politically. Think about Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill’s common fight against fascism during World War Two. Or Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s common struggle against Soviet power during the 1980s.

Likewise, Johnson and Trump both embody populist hostility towards establishment norms. But with Trump gone, questions will soon be asked about whether Johnson will depart as well.

Certainly, the Labour leader Keir Starmer has a great deal more in common with Biden than Johnson.

There was a telling moment on Wednesday when, with Trump and Biden still neck and neck, Johnson refused to condemn Trump’s outrageous claims of voter fraud and his call for votes to stop being counted.

Brexit? Biden's not keen

There are other, more tangible ways in which Johnson will suffer. His Brexit strategy depended on striking a trade deal with Washington. In April 2016, then-president Barack Obama warned that a British trade deal would be at the back of the queue after Brexit. Remember also that Biden was Obama’s vice president at the time.

Joe Biden David Cameron
Joe Biden, when vice-president, met with then-UK PM David Cameron in Downing Street in February 2013 (AFP) ​

It’s no surprise then that Biden has been dismissive of Brexit. "We’d have preferred a different outcome," he said the day after the referendum, before criticising the "reactionary politicians and demagogues peddling xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism".

More recently, Biden has issued stern warnings to London about the consequences for peace in Northern Ireland if the UK breaks from the deal struck in 1998. "We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement to become a casualty of Brexit," he said earlier this month.

All this means that political survival has suddenly become very tough for Johnson – and not just for him.

This week’s election has been a great day for liberal democracy but bad news for Trump and his disciple Johnson

Defeat for Trump is also a body blow for several of those who got too close to Trump, such as media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who used his Fox News network to propel the property millionaire to the White House. Murdoch is now tarnished by association with the most racist president in US history.

Likewise Michael Gove, probably the most powerful member of the Johnson administration, is also tarnished. It should be remembered how Gove travelled across the Atlantic in 2017 to meet with Trump, with Murdoch reportedly in the room

Gove used to be seen as a Tory moderniser: now he is irrevocably associated with a US president who is likely to be damned by history.

This week’s election has been been a great day for liberal democracy but bad news for Trump and his disciple Johnson. Will Johnson be able to outlast Trump for long? It's a question to which we may soon have an answer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Thsi article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.