Some whirlwind romances you regret for many years. Isolated from its former European partners as Brexit approached, the U.K. looked for succor from the U.S. Two Conservative prime ministers in succession — Theresa May and Boris Johnson — tried to woo the White House in search of a revived Atlanticism and a fat trade deal. Did Johnson go too far in courting President Donald Trump?
Johnson is often compared to Trump, especially in the liberal U.S. media, which sees one blond political buffoon with a salty turn of phrase as being pretty much like another. And yet, the two men's characters are very different. Britain's prime minister is a hopeless optimist who dislikes giving friends, colleagues and voters any bad news, and who tends toward a Pollyannaish view that things will turn out alright. Trump's vision of the world is unremittingly dark. He sees chaos, gloom and betrayal everywhere.
Johnson can use populist language, but he does so to invigorate. Trump deploys it to agitate, and there is — as we saw this week — a vast difference.
As the democratic world reacted with horror to Wednesday's insurrection at the Capitol, Johnson tweeted "Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress," adding that "the United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power."
The tweet, however, neither named the president nor mentioned his role as chief insurgent. By Thursday's close of play Johnson shed the coyness and condemned Trump directly for "encouraging people to storm the Capitol." He said, "For him to cast doubt on a free and fair election, that's completely wrong."
That leaves the awkward question of why, in the weeks since Joe Biden's election, Johnson left it so long to use Britain's status as valued U.S. ally to say something consequential about Trump's dangerous refusal to go quietly.
Accusations of soft pedaling don't just apply to the British, however. Western governments rarely like to intervene in the internal affairs of an ally, least of all in the domestic politics of a friendly superpower. President Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel were similarly circumspect as the mayhem in Washington unfolded on Wednesday night, although they at least addressed their remarks to camera. Merkel's "angry and sad" comment left no doubt that she was personally invested.
Johnson's allies point out that he did hail Biden as the winner of the election within hours of the result, to Trump's evident anger. Indeed, the divide between Europe's "progressive" leaders and its more conservative ones on tackling Trump isn't as clear as you'd think. Macron engineered a friendly three-day state visit for the president in 2018, an event that matched Trump's audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
The disgraceful manner of Trump's exit shows that the U.K. and the EU's "Big Two" of France and Germany should have been far braver in defending democracy. This applies to how they treat other world powers, too. If Merkel is so angry and sad about the scenes in Washington, what about her embrace of China in a lucrative EU investment deal that will do wonders for German industry, and her silence on China's treatment of Hong Kong?
Johnson isn't really as close to Trump as his enemies suggest. The president cares little for Britain other than his celebrity's delight at hobnobbing with royalty and his fondness for Scottish golf. The two men had an almighty row about the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, during which Trump slammed the phone down. But Johnson has traded on his relationship with Trump and was thrilled about their joint mission of making leftish liberals miserable.
These ties carry a cost now. A host of embarrassing Johnson quotes is being dredged up, including this gem: "If Trump can fix North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal then I don't see why he's any less of a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama."
After Johnson's own shabby treatment of Parliament — he prorogued (suspended) the House of Commons in 2019 to try to unblock Brexit legislation — was vetoed by the British Supreme Court, Trump endorsed "my friend" Boris. The difference is that Johnson did eventually restore the U.K.'s legislative assembly, while Trump clearly has no regard at all for America's equivalent institutions. But western leaders need to be aware of how all attacks on democratic bodies tend to look the same.
Kim Darroch, who resigned as Britain's Washington ambassador in 2019 after Johnson had failed to back him in a row over leaked emails critical of the president, said on Thursday that No. 10 "had got a bit too close to the Trump presidency" and was "too warm about Trump's performance."
Johnson didn't secure anything concrete from this. The truth is that Trump has been a disappointment to the prime minister. The Conservative right thought the Brexit-loving president might deliver a precious U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement to help compensate for loss of access to the EU single market. But the negotiations, particularly over agriculture, were sticky and time ran out. The White House made clear the U.K. would have to fall into line on its China trade policy.
As always, the "special relationship" tilts toward the dominant partner. Britain may end up with an Asia trade deal before we have the delights of eating American chlorinated chicken.
Realists in Johnson's party, who disliked the president's disregard for allies and friendships with authoritarians, could at least see some merit in Trump's go-it-alone foreign policy. The deals between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, and the willingness to take on China made a rough-and-ready sense. Even a few idealists were happy to make common cause with Washington over Beijing's treatment of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Uighurs.
More uncomfortably, there is also a noisy minority of Tories who admire Trump for all the worst reasons, as Paul Goodman, editor of the grassroots ConservativeHome website, admits. He cites "anti-lockdown maniacs (including prominent journalists once close to Johnson), who now claim that COVID-19 doesn't exist, climate change obsessives who rail not at government policy but scientific fact and conspiracists who babble on about Davos."
While some fret about the influence of these zealots on Johnson's policy making, he's never been a natural bedfellow of the loony right. Quite the contrary, he has become an enthusiast for net-zero carbon emissions and has always supported relaxed immigration policy. He has always been an opportunist — his rise to the top depended on it — but on social and environmental policy his instincts are more progressive.
One great sadness of what has happened this week is that Trump's rejection of the democratic verdict and his incitement to violence are doing enormous damage to the West. Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are making hay.
"No interference in internal affairs" is the pat diplomatic rejoinder of China and Russia whenever their human rights violations are raised by the West. Our leaders shouldn't be echoing that line as a cynical excuse for sitting on their hands. Johnson and the others should make it clear they stand shoulder to shoulder with millions of good American democrats — whatever their party allegiance — in a time of trial.
Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board. This piece was written for Bloomberg.