Every four years, on the first Tuesday in November the United States heads to the polls to elect the next President. Like much that comes from the other side of the Atlantic, elections in America are full of superlatives. They are bigger, more expensive and longer. They truly are world-beating.
To add to the superlatives, this US election is more crucial to the whole world than any I can remember. In the last four years, as well as trying to stop Muslims from entering the country, separating migrant children from their parents, stirring up racial hatred and all of the rest of the domestic nonsense that has gone on, the current US administration has performed staggeringly badly on the global stage. Rather than being the world’s policeman, Donald Trump’s America has cosied up to dictators and abandoned co-ordinated efforts to curb global warming. By coincidence, the day after the Presidential election is the anniversary of the United States beginning the process to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Who wins the 2020 election also matters to the United Kingdom, especially given our self-inflicted wound of Brexit. The UK government has pinned much of its ambition to create “Global Britain” (whatever that may be) on signing a quick trade deal with the United States. Indeed both sides of the Johnson-Trump fantasy political partnership have made bold claims of the ease of signing “a great free trade deal”.
So who will win?
The problem is, with over eight million cases and more than 220,000 deaths, Trump’s failure to handle the coronavirus pandemic should have finished off his bid for re-election. Indeed the polls have shown Joe Biden with a consistent lead for many months. Still, doubts remain: after all, Hillary Clinton was heavily tipped to win in 2016 yet still lost. Could the same thing happen again?
To add to the uncertainty, postal voting has increased dramatically and Trump’s assertions that mail-in voting will result in widespread fraud, added to delays in counting such votes (in some states postal voting cannot start until the polls are closed), means the final, accepted, election result may not be known for many weeks after polling has taken place. Indeed, Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation as a member of the Supreme Court, makes it more likely that any electoral dispute, which ends up there, will be judged in Trump’s favour.
Who does UK favour – Trump or Biden?
This leaves the UK’s Brexit government with a dilemma. Do they continue to support the fellow beneficiary of the 2016 populist tidal wave, Trump, or do they switch horses and back the likely winner, Biden?
Johnson has form when it comes to choosing between two opposite sides, of course. He dithered over supporting Leave or Remain in 2016. He wrote two articles for publication, the one that made it to the Daily Telegraph on 16th March that year saying we should vote to leave the EU and the unpublished one with the words “Think of the rest of the EU. Think of the future. Think of the desire of your children and your grandchildren to live and work in other European countries; to sell things there, to make friends and perhaps to find partners there.”
Perhaps he has drafted two speeches to respond to the US election. They’ll both repeat the myth of the “Special Relationship” “with our American friends” and say the UK remains America’s closest ally. What else might they contain?
A Trump victory is easily dealt with. Trump and Johnson have both played on fears over immigration and claimed they would restore their nations’ standing in the world; both have made political capital out of criticising the EU. If the polls are wrong, expect lots of talk of an ever-stronger partnership, reshaping the world order (aka ignoring international agreements) and the world’s quickest, biggest and best trade deal, chlorinated chicken and all.
A win for Biden is more of a problem. It’s true that much of what Biden stands for is not dissimilar to the centre right in the UK – he’s no Bernie Sanders. However, it’s also true that Biden was Vice President in 2016 when Barack Obama warned the UK would be at the back of the queue in any trade deal with the US if the country chose to leave the EU. More recently, in September this year, Biden said any UK-US trade deal had to be “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement, with its provisions preventing borders going up in Ireland. Biden is a Brexit-sceptic with Irish roots, not a natural bedfellow for this British government. The UK has taken the first tentative steps to build bridges with Biden’s team but has been rebuffed – the Democrats can’t be seen as premature in assuming they have won the election by speaking to foreign governments right now.
When Johnson became PM, Trump said “He’s a different kind of guy, but they say I’m a different kind of guy, too,”. If one of these “different kind of guys” leaves the stage, the other one might have run out of luck, leaving this country even more isolated than it is now.