The Irish question has played havoc with the best-laid plans of hardline Brexiters. Since 2016, successive Conservative governments have struggled to square the circle of keeping the United Kingdom intact, while avoiding the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The border issue has been the achilles heel of Brexit, the thorn in the side of true believers in a “clean break” with the EU. So the prospect of an Irish-American politician on his way to the White House, just as Boris Johnson attempts to finagle his way round the problem, is an 11th-hour plot twist to savour.
Joe Biden’s views on Brexit are well known. The president-elect judges it to be a damaging act of self-isolation; strategically unwise for Britain and unhelpful to American interests in Europe. But it is the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on Ireland that concerns Mr Biden most. This autumn, he was forthright on the subject of the government’s controversial internal market bill, which was again debated on Monday in the House of Lords. The proposed legislation effectively reneges on a legally binding protocol signed with the EU, which would impose customs checks on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland. In doing so, it summons up the spectre of a hard border on the island of Ireland, undermining the Good Friday agreement. Mr Biden is adamant that the GFA must not “become a casualty of Brexit”. He is expected to convey that message, in forceful terms, when his first telephone conversation with Mr Johnson eventually takes place.
This is somewhat awkward for the prime minister. Mr Johnson badly needs to establish good relations with the new regime in Washington, ahead of crucial trade negotiations. In light of that, Mr Johnson may choose not to insist on the clauses relating to Northern Ireland when the bill goes back to the Commons. That would certainly be the wise move, although the noises coming from the government remain defiant. But the prime minister’s challenges in dealing with the coming regime change in Washington go well beyond Brexit.
The personal dynamics between Mr Johnson and Mr Biden and his team are, to put it mildly, unpromising. The prime minister’s insulting remarks four years ago, about Barack Obama’s Kenyan ancestry, have not been forgotten. Mr Johnson seems to be viewed by many senior Democrats as a kind of pound-shop Donald Trump. There is also little regard for the consistency or sincerity with which Mr Johnson holds his views. At the weekend, when the prime minister instagrammed his congratulations to Mr Biden on his victory, a Biden ally witheringly referred to Mr Johnson as “this shape-shifting creep”.
So in the race to make friends and influence people in the new Washington, Britain has the very opposite of a head start. The smart money is on Paris becoming the first European capital to receive President Biden. That reflects both good relations with Emmanuel Macron and a concern to rebuild diplomatic bridges, after four years in which Mr Trump rarely ceased to disparage and seek to undermine the EU. Mr Biden means to bring back a sense of diplomatic propriety and integrity to America’s relations with European friends and allies.
Britain, having left the EU, cannot be a central player in this restoration project. But it can avoid making unforced errors. The government should urgently start to read the runes of new, more internationalist times. The politics of disruptive confrontation, as exemplified by the internal market bill, suddenly looks dangerously dated. When the Northern Ireland minister, Brandon Lewis, confirmed in September that the bill would break international law, senior Conservatives such as Sir Michael Howard and Theresa May expressed their dismay at the damage to Britain’s reputation that would result. They were ignored.
But faced with an Irish-American president who is determined to rehabilitate relations with the EU, and is deeply suspicious of Mr Johnson’s Trumpian tendencies, to continue with the bill as it stands would be folly. With Mr Trump on his way out, Mr Johnson needs to sober up and start shifting some shapes on this and other matters.