British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — weathering a week in which Parliament rejected his hard-line Brexit strategy, a score of party loyalists turned against him and his brother quit the government to protest his policies — was all smiles Thursday as he greeted Vice President Mike Pence at 10 Downing St.
But Pence’s visit to the prime minister’s official residence highlighted an awkward reality: the Trump administration’s enthusiastic backing of Brexit, Britain’s hotly contested plan to leave the European Union, has been causing headaches for the beleaguered Johnson.
In the course of a bruising political brawl over whether Brexit should be delayed, Johnson’s opponents have seized upon the praise lavished on the prime minister by President Trump, casting the U.S. as a villain waiting to seize the spoils if Britain leaves the EU without a deal on Oct. 31.
Lawmakers voted Wednesday to block off the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and also rebuffed Johnson’s efforts to call early elections to try to win a public mandate for his pledge to take Britain out of the EU with or without an accord governing the relationship going forward.
Mistrust of U.S. motives figured in parliamentary debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the opposition Labor Party warning that a Britain bereft of its familial trade relationship with the EU would be vulnerable to unscrupulous practices by big American corporations and would risk being stripped of food-safety and other consumer protections that the United Kingdom has enjoyed as part of the European bloc.
That led to an odd burst of prominence for the phrase “chlorinated chicken” — a reference to critics’ concerns that U.S. poultry treated with antimicrobial rinses, a practice banned in the EU, would be foisted upon British consumers if the country eventually signs on to a prospective American trade deal touted by both Trump and Johnson.
But “chlorinated chicken” has also become a catchall descriptor for unease about the prospect of a post-Brexit Britain becoming overly subservient to the United States, even as Brexit backers portray the planned split with the EU as a triumphant assertion of British sovereignty.
Johnson, who became prime minister in July, tried, with debatable success, to turn the phrase into a scathing insult of rival Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Party leader. During Wednesday’s parliamentary proceedings, he called Corbyn the only chlorinated chicken in sight — and repeated his gibe about the Labor leader to Pence the next day.
Another sensitive topic came up in Johnson’s meeting with Pence: the National Health Service, Britain’s flawed but widely revered system that provides universal health coverage. Johnson’s critics have repeatedly suggested that U.S. pharmaceutical and medical companies would seek to muscle in post-Brexit, raising prices for drugs and services.
Trump did little to allay those concerns in a state visit to the U.K. in June. With Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May by his side, the U.S. leader was asked by a British reporter about potential harm to the NHS arising from Brexit.
When the president did not appear to understand the question, May quickly interceded, spelling out what the initials stood for, as if simply clarifying an inaudible query. But Trump alarmed many Britons with his response that “when you’re dealing on trade, everything is on the table, so — NHS or anything else.”
Critics pounced on that, with Corbyn tweeting that “our NHS is not for sale.” On that point, Johnson voiced rare agreement with his rival, telling Pence in their meeting that the health service would not be part of future trade talks with Washington.
The pro-Brexit stance of the Trump administration has also added to tensions between Johnson and Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who has voiced strong concerns that Britain’s departure from the EU — of which Ireland will remain part — would jeopardize peace if it results in a “hard” border with Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
Johnson has insisted that EU scrap the “backstop,” a provision meant to ensure that the Irish border would remain free of infrastructure such as customs and police posts. But European negotiators have stood staunchly by member Ireland in refusing that demand.
In Dublin on Tuesday, Pence told Irish officials that the U.S. recognized “the unique challenge on your northern border,” but that Washington unequivocally backed Brexit. Angry press coverage ensued, with an Irish Times commentator slamming the vice president for “misty-eyed” nostalgia for his ancestral ties to Ireland, even as he ignored the risk that Brexit could reignite bloody sectarian conflict.
After meeting with Pence in London on Thursday, Johnson headed to Brexit-friendly Yorkshire, in northern England, where he declared he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for another delay in Britain’s departure.
The prime minister also vowed to try again next week to win lawmakers’ approval for a general election before the Brexit deadline, hoping to capitalize on a fragmented opposition and on fervent Brexit backers’ anger over yet another prospective delay.
But reporters’ questions to Johnson afterward centered on the political defection of his brother Jo Johnson, who announced hours earlier that he was leaving Parliament and abandoning his Cabinet post rather than lending further support to the prime minister. The younger Johnson wrote on Twitter he could no longer reconcile “family loyalty and the national interest.”
No fraternal strain has emerged — yet — in Johnson’s dealings with Trump. Even as Parliament was handing Johnson serial defeats this week, the president signaled continued backing.
“Boris knows how to win,” he told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
But critics clearly see Johnson’s cordial relationship with Trump as a weakness to be exploited in a likely general election campaign.
Before a procedural vote on Tuesday that paved the way for lawmakers to block a no-deal Brexit, Corbyn assailed the prime minister again for preparing to leave Britain “at the mercy of Donald Trump and United States corporations.”
Defending himself, Johnson did not mention Trump by name. Instead, he turned the topic to the two countries’ historic ties, which he insisted would be deepened in a post-Brexit era.
“Unlike some in the House,” he said, “I consider the United States to be a natural ally.”
Pence, at a dinner in London, compared the relationship of Trump and Johnson to past U.S.-British leadership pairings such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.