Boris Johnson has admitted to a major downgrading of his ambitions for post-Brexit ties with the US after conceding Joe Biden is not negotiating free trade pacts.
After more than 90 minutes of talks with the president in the White House, the Prime Minister conceded on Wednesday he is currently looking to make only “incremental steps” to trading with the States.
Mr Johnson welcomed news that a ban on British lamb imports in the US would be lifted, but poured cold water on hopes that a comprehensive free trade agreement, touted as one of the major prizes of Brexit, will be brokered any time soon.
Speaking to reporters outside the US Capitol building in Washington, the Prime Minister said: “I can tell you today that what we’re going to get from the United States now is a lifting of the decades-old ban, totally unjustified, discriminating on British farmers and British lamb.
“It’s about time too. And what we’re wanting to do is make solid, incremental steps in trade.
“The Biden administration is not doing free trade deals around the world right now but I’ve got absolutely every confidence that a great deal is there to be done.
“And there are plenty of people in that building behind me who certainly want a deal.”
Downing Street said Mr Johnson updated the president on recent developments with the Northern Ireland Protocol during their meeting in the White House on Tuesday.
Mr Biden issued a fresh warning for the UK not to damage the peace process in Northern Ireland over the EU departure.
He did not counter the assertion from his predecessor Barack Obama that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
Sitting next to Mr Johnson in the Oval Office, Mr Biden told reporters: “We’re going to talk a little bit about trade today and we’re going to have to work that through.”
He said he felt “very strongly” about issues surrounding the peace process, as problems with the protocol persisted.
“And I would not at all like to see – nor, I might add, would many of my Republican colleagues like to see – a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland,” he said.
The UK-US partnership is vital as we face the challenges of the future.@POTUS and I will continue to work together to #BuildBackBetter from the pandemic, tackle climate change and strengthen our security partnership.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 22, 2021
Mr Johnson said “that’s absolutely right”, adding: “On that point, Joe, we’re completely at one, nobody wants to see anything that interrupts or unbalances the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
Downing Street said the Prime Minister updated Mr Biden on developments with the protocol since they last met in June.
The White House said Mr Biden “reiterated his longstanding support for a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace”.
The UK is seeking to renegotiate the terms of the Brexit deal with the EU.
The protocol means Northern Ireland is effectively in the EU’s single market for goods, to avoid a hard border with Ireland, which creates a trade barrier for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
In Northern Ireland, DUP and Sinn Fein ministers offered contrasting reactions to Mr Biden’s comments.
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the president had given Mr Johnson a “timely reminder” that the Prime Minister would be risking any future US trade deal if he ditched the protocol.
However, DUP First Minister Paul Givan insisted it was the protocol that had “trashed” the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement by creating east-west barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.