Boris Johnson has failed to come clear about private talks between his Government and US pharmaceutical companies amid fears a US-UK trade deal with inflate the cost of drugs for the NHS, writes Henry McLeish.
The US is playing a much bigger role in our general election than most people think, but Boris Johnson is keen to play down what could end up as a further humiliation for the UK, after the EU referendum. Our Prime Minister is already a populist but why is he so keen to be in the pocket of President Trump?
Surprising? By anointing Johnson as his protégé, urging the PM to team up with Nigel Farage for an “invincible political partnership” – now a reality in their Brexit pact – welcoming the idea of Britain’s post-Brexit future being closely linked to the US and encouraging the myth that a “super charged” UK-US trade deal is imminent, then distorting what that trade deal might look like, Trump, like Putin, is interfering in our election.
The President sees the UK as resembling the 51st state of the US or some overseas territory. Borrowing from Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Trump sees the UK as a “vassal state” with little negotiating strength or leverage and increasingly vulnerable outside the EU.
But many right-wing Conservative MPs, including those in the European Research Group, the ‘Britain Unchained’ warriors, most of whom are now in Johnson’s Cabinet, and the “Singapore on Thames” free-market devotees, are excited at the prospect of leaning towards America.
For this group of questionable patriots, leaving the EU was only the first, and most important, step in the transformation of Britain into a more complete free-market economy. In the EU referendum in 2016, the British people were never informed that “winning” our country back meant selling out to an unpredictable US and an unhinged President.
Johnson keeps refusing to explain
The Americanisation of the UK is not an antidote to Brexit, or a compensation for this unique act of national self-harm. Over the next few weeks, voters have to decide, whether or not Johnson is deliberately obscuring his naive and unquestioning pro-US agenda and over-selling the prospects of a speedy trade deal.
Johnson has refused to publish the parliamentary report into Russian meddling in Brexit; to divulge details of private talks between his Government and US pharmaceutical giants; to come clean on any trade deal and its likely timescale; to explain why Liz Truss, Trade Secretary has been in the US receiving advice from right-wing think tanks on weakening UK regulations for industry; to tell the truth about the NHS being part of the trade negotiations with the US; and to explain the difference between the wildly optimistic views of the PM and the right-leaning press, predicting a deal by the end of 2020, and the harsh reality that a US-UK deal is likely to take three to five years minimum and possibly much longer with no guarantee there will even be a deal! This is the overwhelming view of the timetable in the US.
Setting aside the political affinity between the Conservative party and the Republican party – earlier in the summer 46 Republican senators signed a joint letter to Theresa May offering support – the US is not warming to trade talks.
Johnson should come clean. The US is being asked to come to the rescue of a lesser UK, after Brexit, with no real evidence justifying this approach. Johnson’s desperate attempts to fix this trade deal is leading the UK down a very dangerous and dishonest path.
Trump wants a no-deal Brexit
In the US, there is a feeling that the UK has been significantly weakened as the details of our post-Brexit future unfold. It is worth noting that apart from the nostalgia and the history of this ‘special relationship”, the US has little reason to be generous. The US enjoys a trade surplus on goods and services with the UK and there is no pressing need for them to get excited.
Johnson’s EU withdrawal deal has annoyed Trump. He has said that any lingering ties with the EU would prevent a trade deal. Trump wants a no-deal Brexit, illustrating his opposition to the EU and the prospect of an even more vulnerable Britain. Depending on the outcome of this election, electors could be faced with a no-deal Brexit and no US trade deal.
Agriculture and prescription drugs would be the markets of most benefit to the US. If the US gets what it wants, agriculture would be under severe pressure from lower animal welfare and food standards and the NHS would see dramatic price increases in medicines and pharmaceutical products. This would be a sell out, not a trade deal.
Any trade deal would also have to be ratified by the US Congress and again there is no guarantee of an easy passage. In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already set out the Democrats’ position, saying that if there was any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement as part of Brexit, they would oppose any deal.
No brave new world
The fiction about an early trade deal with the US should be a wake-up call in our election. The Government is simply lying about the progress, substance and the timing of any deal. Johnson sees America as his consolation prize after the UK exits the European Union. This is not how it is seen in the US.
Our election should be an opportunity to quiz the Conservatives on what appears to be their only Brexit benefit. Brexit, with or without a US trade deal, will not unlock a brave new world.
Our “special relationship” with the US has served us well, but the resignation of our Ambassador Kim Darroch represents a low point in relations between the two countries and another example of Trump intervening in the politics of another country; unsurprisingly Johnson provided neither support for the Ambassador nor criticism of Trump. At the heart of this election and Brexit, there is an issue of seismic proportions: a UK, lacking direction, confidence, identity, honesty or any idea of a role in the modern world. Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, said in 1962, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”.
This is as true today as it was then. Our future lies with the EU. Being dragged along on the coat tails of America is the nightmare scenario. The UK election gives us the opportunity to have the serious debate that we didn’t have in the summer of 2016.