Much focus, including my own, has been on how Johnson will survive his first three months as prime minister. But if survive he does and Brexit arrives on October 31, then Britain may finally step onto the path of international realignment envisioned by so many Brexiteers.
One of the unspoken realities of May’s deal with Brussels is that it keeps the UK as close to the EU as it’s possible to be while remaining outside the single market. It’s an attempt to Brexit while changing as little about Britain’s international relations as possible.
That’s one reason why Johnson and other Eurosceptics are so hostile to it. Appointing their own man to Washington would be just one small step in a wholesale reworking of British trade and foreign policy.
– This town ain’t big enough for two special relationships –
Central to that is a trade deal with the US, which by default would mean moving away from the EU. Making that deal so comprehensive and ground-breaking as to provide a new centre point for the global trade system – a stated ambition on the British side – would require the UK to sign up to provisions which would inevitably weaken our trading relationship with the EU, in particular on agrifoods.
Depending on how you see the future of global trade turning out will affect whether you see that as a good or a bad thing.
But there’s no getting away from the transactional nature of trade talks.
Already in preliminary discussions, Britain is being asked not to act as a bridge to Europe, but to join Team America.
And this morning’s news that the US is investigating France’s plans to tax the revenue of tech giants (a move the UK wants to make too) is a handy reminder of the confrontational phase world trade has entered.
– The art of messing up the deal –
Indeed, as my colleagues Anna Issac, James Rothwell and Asa Bennet reveal, US officials are pushing London to see the European Commission “as the bad guys”in an effort to influence our post-Brexit legal system.
That’s one of a series of revelations in an excellent report on how badly those preliminary talks with the United States are going. Overstretched departments are working “at cross purposes” as talks stumble over politically sensitive topics such as rules on health, farming and the financial sector.
Not that those trade talks can be separated from Brexit itself. There is the very real threat that Congress will block any trade deal if the UK does not live up to its commitments to the Good Friday Agreement.
– Picking sides of the Atlantic –
As Sir Christopher Meyer, another former ambassador to the US, wrote of his time in DC, a very select list of countries have ever been able to significantly influence American politics and foreign policy and Britain isn’t on it: “Only Israel, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Irish Republic have shown this quality consistently over the years.”
If Britain uses the opportunity of Brexit to move firmly into the American orbit then there might be a new entry on to that list. But where would that sit with ambitions to be a nimble, buccaneering, free-trading nation?
Will the UK be happy to ride American coattails into the developing world? Or would we prefer a looser relationship so we can make our own inroads? A more nimble Britain would find itself manoeuvering between giants. Will the UK, for example, revive George Osborne’s “golden era” with China? And how would that go down with the Trump administration? Where does the EU fit in all this?
These are all essential questions for British foreign policy in the next decade, but also for right now and the manner in which we leave the EU. Unfortunately, not many people are asking them.