Boris Johnson has claimed that the UK is first in line for a free trade deal with the US after the Trump administration takes office on 20 January.
On a hastily arranged trip to the US to reinforce previously weak links with Donald Trump’s transition team, Johnson also declared on Monday that the incoming administration had a very exciting agenda of change.
Johnson’s claim about the UK’s future status as Washington’s preferred trading partner was a pointed reference to Barack Obama’s warning during the EU referendum campaign that Britain would be at the back of the queue for a trade deal if it chose Brexit.
At the time, the US and EU were trying to complete a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), but that appears to have no future under the presidency of Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of opposition to multilateral trade deals.
After visits to see top aides in Trump Tower in New York and meet members of Congress in Washington, Johnson said: Clearly, the Trump administration-to-be has a very exciting agenda of change. One thing that won’t change, though, is the closeness of the relationship between the US and the UK.
“We are the number two contributor to defence in Nato. We are America’s principal partner in working for global security and, of course, we are great campaigners for free trade. We hear that we are first in line to do a great free trade deal with the United States. So, it’s going to be a very exciting year for both our countries.”
The UK foreign secretary’s trip to the US before Trump’s inauguration on 20 January was aimed at making up a deficit in relations with the new administration – due in some part to Johnson’s past disparaging remarks about the president-elect, who he once described as “unfit” to hold office in the White House.
Following the president-elect’s suggestion that he would back a ban on Muslims entering the US and that parts of London were no-go areas, the foreign secretary said Trump was “clearly out of his mind” and “betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him unfit to hold the office of president of the United States”. Since Trump’s victory, however, Johnson has described the billionaire as a dealmaker and called for an end to the “whinge-o-rama” over his victory.
Confronted with Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women, which surfaced in video footage during the election campaign, Theresa May said on Sunday: I think that’s unacceptable, but in fact Donald Trump himself has said that and has apologised for it.
The British prime minister told Sky News there was more to relations between London and Washington than Trump’s character. “The relationship that the UK has with the United States is about something much bigger than just the relationship between the two individuals as president and prime minister.”
May was speaking as Trump tweeted:
In New York, Johnson met Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, which Bannon once described as a platform for the alt-right, a group known for white nationalist and antisemitic views.
The foreign secretary also met Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who has been acting since the election as his chief foreign policy adviser and a gateway for foreign embassies and governments to Trump himself.
Having been late in identifying Kushner as the main diplomatic conduit to the president-elect, the UK is hoping that a pre-inauguration visit from the foreign secretary could solidify the link before the nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is confirmed by the Senate.
A British official said the meetings at Trump Tower in New York were warm and frank, and covered the full range of foreign policy issues. They acknowledged differences but said that they were ready to work together on those differences,” the official said.
On Monday morning, Johnson held an off-the-record discussion with US political pundits about the shape and likely policies of a Trump administration.
In the afternoon Johnson was due to meet Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, and his Democratic counterpart, Ben Cardin, as well as the majority leader, Sen Mitch McConnell, and the Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan.
The foreign secretary is said to be trying to gauge how much support there is in the Republican majority in Congress for a major reorientation of US foreign policy towards Moscow, and any erosion of Washington’s commitment to Nato allies.
A number of senior Senate Republicans, including Corker, have broken with Trump over his rejection of findings by the US intelligence community that Russia actively interfered with the election.
Johnson is visiting Washington at a time when it is unclear what direction Trump’s foreign policy will take. According to protocol, he is not permitted to have formal contacts with Tillerson until Senate confirmation hearings, due to start on Wednesday, have been completed.