When the highlight of your first trip to the US as prime minister is an awkward minute-long conversation with the president about a shared interest in trains, it’s probably fair to say that things haven’t gone quite as well as hoped. Boris Johnson may feel himself to be the unassailable world king in the UK, but on the other side of the Atlantic he’s pretty much a nobody.
The Americans could scarcely have made the prime minister feel less welcome if they’d tried. His lowest point had been the exchange of presents. He had given Joe Biden a book by the astronaut Tim Peake. Biden had clearly forgotten to get Boris anything because he fumbled around for a White House watch. Nothing quite says you really don’t give a damn than something rustled up at the last minute from the downstairs gift shop.
Come Wednesday morning, Johnson wasn’t even pretending to put a positive spin on things. The previous day he had still tried to hang on to the veneer that some kind of trade deal with the US was in the offing. Or failing that, a deal with the US, Mexico and Canada that Liz Truss had found knocking around somewhere on the floor when she had been minister for international trade. Though that last option didn’t survive the night before Downing Street dismissed it. Presumably because by then someone had started reading the small print.
But come the morning newsround, Boris had admitted defeat. There was no deal to be done. He had it on good authority that the US wasn’t interested in doing a trade deal right now. It was the wrong time of year for it. The US trade deal season ran from 10am on 1 June to 5pm the following day. So we’d just have to wait till next year. And even then we’d have to take our turn at the back of the queue. But the good news was that a trade deal both did and didn’t matter. Schrödinger’s Brexit strikes again.
Johnson ended the interviews with a few recycled ‘Donnez-moi un break’ Franglais gags – when up against it, he always picks an unnecessary fight with the French and an outright lie about not having discussed the Northern Ireland protocol with the president. Or perhaps he had dozed off during that part of his meeting that Number 10 reported he had had with Biden. Either way, the end of the trip couldn’t come soon enough.
With Boris Stateside, prime minister’s questions was left in the hands of Dominic Raab and Angela Rayner, both of whom acquired the title of deputy leader after reshuffle negotiations. The difference being that for Raab it was just a meaningless title designed to be a sop to make up for being sacked as foreign secretary, while for Rayner it was an acknowledgement of real power. And it showed in their exchanges, with the Labour deputy leader going in studs up from the start.
Rayner began by congratulating the prime minister on having achieved absolutely nothing towards reaching a trade deal with the US and – while she had Raab’s attention – would he mind confirming if he still felt that British workers were idlers, as he had written in 2012. Dom smiled nervously, determined to keep “Psycho Dom”, which invariably ended with corpses floating face down in the Thames, in check. And by and large managing it, as there was no sign of the tell-tale throbbing veins in his forehead which are preludes to every killing spree.
Not that Raab was exactly coherent in his responses. His line that Boris had won a stunning victory for Blighty by getting Biden to relax travel regulations to the US sounded as if he could be taking the piss out of the prime minister’s failures. After all, the new travel rules were also extended to 32 other countries, including the entire EU. So it was hardly special treatment for the UK. There again, given the dismal state of Johnson’s overseas diplomacy, maybe that could have gone down as the nearest thing to a win. Go team GB!
Having got the deputy leader firmly on the back foot, Rayner then went for the pile on. She didn’t know when she would next have the opportunity to have a pop at the demoted justice secretary, so she wasn’t going to let any piece of ammo go to waste. So she just let rip. How long would it take those on the lowest pay to earn enough to stay one night at his luxury hotel in Crete? Especially if the sea was open.
How was the government going to stop people falling into fuel poverty once the cuts in universal credit and increase in national insurance contributions came into effect? And when was he going to stop squabbling with the foreign secretary over who was going to get the “115-room taxpayer funded” grace and favour home at Chevening?
Raab mumbled feebly, choosing to ignore almost all the questions. Either because he didn’t know the answers, it was easier to act stupid or he still thought Brits were basically lazy and deserved to freeze to death. He did, though, point out that Chevening was a charity so it didn’t cost the taxpayer anything. A strange hill to die on, given that it’s a charity that only benefits one very well-off person. Or possibly two if Dom got his way. There again, it could just be that Chevening is the one thing he really cares about just now.
The session ended in a clear win for Rayner. Though it was more of a moral victory than a significant one as this PMQs had felt more about theatre than substance. A break from the usual show with normal service to be resumed after the party conferences. Even so, Raab might be regretting having insisted on being made deputy leader. There’s only so much humiliation a man can take.