This could be the moment the special relationship is rekindled if Boris and Biden can paper over the cracks

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boris johnson and Joe Biden - Anadolu
boris johnson and Joe Biden - Anadolu

It should be all smiles at the White House on Tuesday - Joe Biden and Boris Johnson have not traded barbs and animosity this year and are not expected to do so when they meet. But behind the warm rhetoric and handshakes lies a personal and political relationship that retains question marks next to it, not least over whether the two men are really that close.

The so-called Aukus deal, a clumsy acronym for the new Australia-UK-US defence pact involving nuclear-powered submarines, provides a special relationship boost before the trip.

The agreement has left the French - long viewed by the UK as their key rival in cementing relations in Washington DC - in a cold rage, accusing the nations of a “stab in the back”.

Mr Johnson even had his name remembered by Mr Biden in their joint press conference, unlike the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, referred to simply as “that fella down under”. But the flourish should not distract from existing cracks that remain in the Boris-Biden relationship - ones that could well be thrust into the spotlight on this trip.

The personal differences...

For one, there are the personal differences. Before his ascent to the Democratic presidential nomination and eventually the US presidency, Mr Biden was candid on his views.

In December 2019, he greeted Mr Johnson’s landslide election victory by saying the newly re-elected Prime Minister was a "physical and emotional clone" of Donald Trump. The comment reflected the domestic political situation at the time - Mr Biden was fighting rivals who wanted to take the Democratic Party to the Left and he saw Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat as proof of the political folly in that move - but the remark could come back up this week.

Another open wound among Team Biden, according to one former senior UK diplomatic figure, was a controversial comment Mr Johnson made during the 2016 EU referendum campaign about Barack Obama, who was US president when Mr Biden was vice president.

Mr Johnson wrote that Mr Obama's "part-Kenyan" heritage may have explained the removal of a Winston Churchill bust from the Oval Office. It still grates on Obama-Biden staffers from that era back in the administration now. "Some of them really, really resented it and haven't forgotten," the figure said.

On Mr Johnson’s side, there is little public criticism of his counterpart on the record to be regurgitated today - unlike with Mr Trump, where Mr Johnson had to smooth over a previous comment that he was “unfit” for the presidency.

But two sources who have discussed Brexit with Mr Johnson told The Telegraph recently that the Prime Minister is genuinely frustrated over Mr Biden’s willingness to echo Ireland’s line over the Northern Ireland Protocol. "He worries that Biden deep down is too uncritical in his acceptance of Ireland's view of everything," said one of Mr Johnson. “They just listen to Dublin,” said another of the Biden team.

Mr Biden is known to cherish his Irish ancestry. But Downing Street figures who have been in the room and on the calls when Mr Johnson and Mr Biden speak push back firmly on any suggestion of personal animus.

They have bonded in the past on their love of trains. Mr Biden is dubbed “Amtrak Joe” because he used to travel down to Washington every day from Delaware by train. Mr Johnson, meanwhile, is pushing forward high-speed rail and relishes big infrastructure projects.

"They do get on very well,” said one government figure who has watched them interact first hand. Mr Biden’s folksy charm - a core part of his political image in the States - is said to come across in person.

The policy differences...

And then there are the policy differences. These should not be over-exaggerated - both men are closer in policy terms than Mr Trump and Mr Johnson were, despite the common (and in the Prime Minister’s view quite lazy) suggestion the men were similar.

One difference though is on Brexit and its implications. Mr Biden has never hidden his opposition to the UK leaving the EU - he was in Ireland the day the result dropped in June 2016 and made clear his regret at the way the British people had voted.

There is little doubt Washington is in a different position to London on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which demands customs checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to keep the Irish land border open. The Johnson Government believes it has the right to walk away from those commitments and is threatening to do so because of the impact it has in undermining the integrity of the UK. The Biden administration wants the UK to stick to the deal. The tension has been bubbling away for months.

Lord Frost, the cabinet minister in charge of Brexit policy, was summoned to the US embassy in London for a dressing down on the topic in June. And in a No 10 meeting last Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives and top Biden ally, delivered the US position face-to-face to Mr Johnson.

Nancy Pelosi visited Downing Street last week to talk face-to-face with the PM - Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire
Nancy Pelosi visited Downing Street last week to talk face-to-face with the PM - Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

Another linked issue is the UK-US trade deal. More than five years on from the Brexit vote, the terms have still not been agreed, let alone the time carved out in both chambers of Congress to get the agreement into law.

Mr Biden’s willingness to prioritise the talks over other pressing reforms he needs Congress to approve remains unclear. Transport is another point of contention.

One test of whether the “special relationship” really is special is the degree to which the desires and wishes of Britons are heard and met in Washington - and vice versa.

Currently, every American can visit Britain, but barely any Briton can visit America from the UK. Mr Biden has retained Mr Trump’s travel ban imposed when Covid struck in the spring of 2020, meaning only US citizens and permanent residents can travel into America from scores of countries.

There are exemptions that can be secured from US embassies, but the process is bureaucratic and uncertain. It is not just the UK too - the ban extends to almost all European countries and other nations, so is not a Britain-only problem. But it is still stopping millions of Britons who in a normal year fly from the UK to the US from doing so, both for business and for leisure.

Climate change is the topic Whitehall identified as the one on which they could bond with Mr Biden when he won the presidency, given COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, is being hosted in Glasgow in November. Even here, however, differences exist.

There is disquiet in Westminster that the US is yet to stump up a promised increase in cash for developing countries to tackle climate change, calling into question whether the flagship US$100bn-a-year target can be reached.

And then there is Afghanistan. Cabinet ministers and UK diplomats publicly and privately made clear last month that Britain wanted the US to withdraw from the country at a much slower pace than Mr Biden demanded, but got effectively overruled.

It led to Mr Johnson pointing the finger at the Oval Office for the debacle seen in Kabul and its airport as the Taliban took the capital, while politicians from almost every political persuasion in the UK Parliament condemned Mr Biden’s actions. Mr Biden is not Mr Trump.

This year there have not been tweets to react to, new tariffs on UK products or tantrums to handle. But a new set of complexities exist. At their core lies one big question, the answer which remains to be known: Does Mr Biden really care that much about the UK?

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