‘Whatever happens to Joe Biden, Keir Starmer faces an American challenge’

Ed Owen
Tennessee Witney / Shutterstock

This Thursday, Americans across the country will be enjoying Independence Day with fireworks, barbecues and parties. We can be confident that the festivities will not be punctuated by breaking news from Warrington South, Norwich North or Doncaster Central.

The truth is that the British general election campaign has barely registered in the US at all. There has been little or no reference to it on the mainstream TV news channels. Even in the politically connected circles of Washington DC, it is not a major topic of conversation or interest.

Think tanks have generally ignored it, and politicians have largely been oblivious to it. What commentary there has been in the quality press has tended to focus more on the near-comic theatre of Rishi Sunak’s “Drowning Street” announcement and his D-Day fiasco than any serious analysis of the poll’s impact on the UK’s future or its relationship with the US.

In part, this lack of interest reflects the fact that UK positions on key foreign and security policy issues like Ukraine are unlikely to change very much whoever enters Downing Street on 5th July. Both Conservative and Labour parties are committed to maintaining essential aspects of the transatlantic alliance.

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It’s also the case that the key British political personalities have made little or no impact in the US compared to Tony Blair in the 1990s and 2000s and even, for very different reasons, Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak has failed to build generate much of a profile here despite his background as a Stanford alumnus and owner of a £5m penthouse flat in Santa Monica, while Keir Starmer is a virtual unknown having not visited the US at all in the four years he has been leader of the Labour Party.

Of course, British politics (or politics in any other country) is never going to be able to get much of a look-in at a time of wall-to-wall coverage of the impending US Presidential election here, not least in the wake of last week’s televised debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

As widely reported, the debate was a disaster for Biden who rambled and stuttered his way through this excruciating contest. Often appearing disorientated, he gave the impression of a candidate who might even struggle to last the course of the election campaign never mind another four years in the White House.

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The debate has sown panic among many Democrats and created much chatter about the possibility of an “open” convention in Chicago at which the party’s 4,000 delegates would choose a new candidate for President. It looks, however, like they are stuck with the man who will turn 86 before leaving the White House if re-elected for a second term.

The uncomfortable truth

But there is a deeper and more uncomfortable truth that the UK election’s invisibility reflects, and one that sets a significant challenge for a Labour Government. It is that Britain’s influence in Washington is at its lowest it has been for decades, and a Trump White House promises to diminish it further.

The pantomime of British politics over the last decade and the rapid turnover of Tory Prime Ministers has undermined the UK’s reputation as a stable ally here. A combination of Brexit and economic woes have undeniably reduced our status in an American political environment that still loves the Brits for our history and culture but, ultimately, rewards power and impact.

It will be for Keir Starmer to turn this challenge into an opportunity, and securing a sizeable majority on Thursday will win him a rare commodity on the current world stage: a leader with domestic political strength and stability.

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Most western leaders in Washington DC next week for the NATO summit are seriously weakened by political events at home. Emmanuel Macron looks set to be forced to share power in France with the far-right, Olaf Scholz’s coalition in Germany is deeply unpopular barely a year before national elections, and Justin Trudeau’s Canadian Liberals are trailing their Conservative opponents by 15 points in national opinion polls.

The summit promises to be Starmer’s first outing on the international stage as Prime Minister. He will use it to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to Ukraine and to begin to build a strong relationship with Joe Biden. There is a lot that connects the current incumbent of the White House to Labour’s leader, not least a shared commitment to using public investment to drive the green transition and industrial growth.

Yet Starmer will be keen to ensure he is well positioned in the event of a Trump election win in November too. David Lammy’s recent visit to Washington DC included meetings with people close to the presumptive Republican nominee, and Starmer himself will want to explore how he can build a productive relationship with him.

There are more than personalities at play here though. It is clear that the primary foreign policy focus of a second Trump Presidency will be on China and not on Russia or Europe. Indeed, some of Trump’s advisers warn that US’s commitments in Europe and the Middle East must be scaled back to strengthen its preparedness for military conflict with the People’s Republic over Taiwan.

This has profound implications for the future of the war in Ukraine and for wider European security, and will pose Starmer with fundamental questions about where UK’s strategic interests lie. It also presents an opportunity for him to play a pivotal role in helping shape a shared understanding of where European interests lie too.

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