Commentators and politicians around the world have frequently compared the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with U.S. President Donald Trump, noting their shared casual relationships with the truth as well as populist and nativist proclivities. The perceived similarities between the two leaders even proved a rare point of consensus between the candidates in the recent U.S. presidential election: President-elect Joe Biden reportedly referred to Johnson as Trump’s “physical and emotional clone,” while Trump publicly called Johnson “Britain Trump.”
The U.S. election—according to this school of thought and (quickly denied) media reports of “panic” inside Downing Street—was a disaster for Johnson, who, the idea goes, is about to lose a key ally and kindred ideological spirit on the world stage. It’s certainly true that Johnson and Trump share some common traits and interests. Trump enthusiastically backed Brexit, of which Johnson was a key architect, and they sought to project a warm interpersonal relationship.
Johnson has expressed awe of U.S. power and support for a conventional, strong Anglo-American relationship so often—and while holding such a variety of roles, from right-wing hack to mayor of a liberal big city—that they would seem to be consistent beliefs. (“All my life,” he said last week, while condemning the insurrection, “America has stood for some very important things, an idea of freedom and an idea of democracy.”) The same conclusion may apply to Johnson’s praise of internationalist presidents, who he has consistently portrayed as stewards of America’s international prestige.
Alternatively, Johnson’s past praise of liberal presidents and then, more recently, of Trump could be entered as evidence for another widely held view of Johnson: that he has no beliefs at all—or at least, none that he isn’t prepared to cast aside at a moment’s notice—and will simply say whatever he finds politically advantageous at any given moment.
The realities of Brexit—and Johnson’s responsibility for executing them—still complicate the relevance of his past statements about U.S. presidents to his future relationship with Biden. Johnson didn’t only seek to establish a warm relationship with Trump for moral support on Brexit; he was also angling for a quick, post-Brexit trade pact with the United States, both as an economic and diplomatic boon in its own right and, prior to Britain striking a trade deal with the EU in December, as leverage to wield in negotiations with the bloc.
Johnson and Trump also clashed on key issues, including Trump’s trade war with China, and, as numerous commentators have pointed out, Johnson seems far more aligned with Biden on Iran and on climate change, which is emerging as a foreign-policy priority for Johnson ahead of Britain’s hosting of the COP26 summit later this year. At the very least, where they disagree, Johnson will be able to count on Biden’s consistency—a benefit Trump has never offered, even to supposed allies.
Biden, of course, may judge that he can’t count on Johnson’s consistency. At least initially, the Biden administration will be preoccupied with domestic crises, and when he looks to Europe, he may well prioritize cultivating ties with Paris, Brussels, and Berlin—the ringleaders of an influential alliance from which Britain just decided to isolate itself.
But Biden won’t likely treat Johnson’s Britain as a Trump-tainted pariah either. Whatever happens next, Johnson’s relationship with Biden is not inevitably doomed by his recent dalliance with, or supposed similarities to, the outgoing president. At the very least, Brits and Americans can expect, based on Johnson’s record, that he will pivot to whatever serves his interests, and if those interests happen to align with his long-standing, pre-Trump views on internationalist U.S. foreign policy, all the better. He and Biden are not poles apart, even if they could hardly be called each other’s clone.