48. Transatlantic Tango

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

28 October 2020

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“I think Donald Trump is clearly out of his mind if he thinks that’s a sensible way to proceed… What he’s doing is playing the game of the terrorists and those who seek to divide us, and I have to say, when Trump says that there are ‘no-go’ areas in London, he’s betraying stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit for the office of the presidency. I would like to invite him to come to see the whole of London and take him around the city, except I wouldn’t want to expose Londoners to any unnecessary risk of meeting Donald Trump.”
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, about Donald Trump, reality show host, in 2015.

“Actually he has many, many good qualities”
Boris Johnson, candidate for PM, on President Donald Trump, 2019.

By the time you read this, it is entirely possible that the US presidential election will be a done deal, and we will know whether the Americans and the world will have to cope with another four years of incompetence, corruption and mendacity. Equally likely the matter will have been kicked into the long grass as it was in 2000, to be resolved by a Supreme Court which has just been dishonestly twisted into a 6-3 Conservative majority by the opportunistic behaviour of the Senate Republicans.

Why is this of interest to us here in Oxford for Europe? You may well ask. The truth is that American voters at this moment probably have more influence over the fate of this country than we do ourselves.

What we know is that “negotiations“ around the UK/EU trade deal are entering their endgame, with nobody entirely sure whether Boris Johnson is playing chicken with our livelihoods or simply running down the clock until the inevitable no Deal car crash happens and he can blame the EU for their obstinacy. This blame game is of course unjustified in the eyes of anybody who knows the facts, but we can be quite certain that it will be aided and abetted by the right-wing press, and many other more credulous compatriots will be taken in. However, there is a plausible theory, supported by as eminent a person as Sir Ivan Rogers,  that neither of these motivations is foremost in what our prime minister is pleased to call his mind. Rather, it is argued, he and his Svengali, Dominic Cummings, are awaiting the results of the US election before deciding whether to accept a gossamer-thin deal or no deal at all.

Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the EU

In the event of a victory by his new best friend Trump, the best outcome from BJ‘s perspective would be no deal. Trump has made it clear that any trade deal with the European Union would block US/UK negotiations – after all his only objective is to have his way 100% – and if that happened we might even have to wait a bit longer for our chlorinated chicken. On the other hand, Biden, like Obama, could never see any merit in Brexit, rather from his perspective it is a major obstacle to international co-operation, and if a no Deal Brexit threatens the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement then all bets are off. What appears to be a revelation to our prime minister, even though any Irish person could have told him this years ago, is that politically in the USA the Irish have clout and the UK does not, even more so now that Brexit has actually happened. The “special relationship” belongs to the era of Reagan and Thatcher, or perhaps that of Kennedy and Macmillan.

It is estimated that Trump rallies have been responsible for 30,000 Covid infections and 700 deaths

Either way the precious US deal may turn out to be beyond salvation. Given all the evidence that it will bring very few benefits (possibly about 0.2% of GDP) and lots of pain (not just the proverbial chlorinated chicken and GM-derived food, but also a serious threat to the NHS and our ability to trade with Europe), the loss of an American trade deal should not make us weep. Let’s leave the weeping to Johnson.

Having decided this is how the decision is to be made, I wonder whether Johnson and Cummings lie awake at night in fear of an inconclusive outcome and another month-long court battle, as in 2000? That really would be an irony.

It is all too tempting to believe that Biden has it in the bag. Nationally he has a 9% lead in the polls, his campaign has far deeper pockets (by a ratio of 3 to 1), and William Hill is pricing him at 2 to 1 on (admittedly a worsening from 9 to 4 on two weeks ago). He is now campaigning actively in the states which were previously considered safely Republican. Is his confidence justified? There are several very good reasons for not counting our chickens just yet.

It is certainly true that more people have or will cast their votes for Biden on a national scale. The large number of postal votes – assuming they ever get counted – will favour Biden. However as in the UK the electoral system creates anomalies. A Democratic candidate almost always has to achieve more votes than his Republican rival to gain the presidency . This is because the less populous states such as Wyoming (580,000 people and three Electoral College votes) which tend to go Republican, have far more influence on the outcome per capita than the larger ones (eg California with 40,000,000 people and 55 votes). Al Gore and Hillery Clinton learned that lesson to their cost. Secondly, in spite of all the Trump bluster about electoral rigging on the Democrat side, all the evidence points the other way. Without doubt there is voter suppression in some Democrat areas, namely less affluent and less white parts of the country, by means of more sparsely distributed and more crowded polling stations and insistence on voter ID (which of course many poorer voters do not have). Thirdly there is use of social media. I think it is a given that on the morning of 3rd November some massive and damning lie about Biden will go viral. Because of careful targeting it will not come to the attention of the Biden campaign until much later, and even if it does there will not be time to issue an effective refutation. On the other hand, as we know from the experience of both the UK Leave and Trump campaigns in 2016, there will be a widespread last minute mailshot telling Biden supporters that they do not need to bother voting because the presidency is in the bag. It is entirely plausible that Trump could win or steal the election even without the help of his Russian allies who are allegedly as we speak infiltrating the software on which the election is being run. Let us hope that those efforts are in vain. Let us hope too that the Biden campaign has learned the lessons of the last 3 elections: how to energise the electorate as in 2008 and 2012, and how to avoid alienating them as in 2016.

Amy Coney Barrett being rushed by Trump onto the Supreme Court, despite the precedent, enforced rigidly in 2016 to Obama’s disadvantage, that no such appointment should be made by an outgoing president.

And as for the US Supreme Court, Biden very reasonably refused to comment on whether he would, given the opportunity, increase its size. There are good constitutional reasons why he could justify adding four more justices, therefore restoring a 7-6 liberal majority. Or perhaps even more? Frankly, the sooner the better.

And back home in the UK, who knows, on 4th November we may well know our fate.

In short, our Prime Minister has just told us he is walking away from negotiations which might have mitigated the disaster of Brexit, he is by common consent throwing British industry and agriculture under the bus, all for the dream of creating a “global Britain” which is based nothing but fantasy. We must speak out and do all we can to make sure this never happens.  

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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