Is Joe Biden woke? Boris Johnson says there’s ‘nothing wrong’ if he is

Is Joe Biden woke? Needless to say there are many more weighty questions flowing from the inauguration of a new mainstream liberal internationalist US president.

But as is clear from the slew of easily-available punditry, it’s too early to answer almost any of them. So this is a good place to start as any.

I posed to Boris Johnson the question of Mr Biden‘s wokery on Wednesday afternoon as the inauguration was still going on, but only after he’d been snapped watching a bit of it on a telly in the Downing Street press office.

On one level this may seem a trivial issue to question a UK prime minister about alongside imminent floods, coronavirus death tolls and shared policy objectives with the new US administration.

But the question of culture warriors and weaponised social policy issues are an intractable feature of US and UK elections now and politics will always be about dividing lines.

The new president is often called “woke” by his enemies on the right and “insufficiently woke” by the US left and does not often appear to use the term approvingly.

Nevertheless, the new president had been given the label approvingly that morning in a considered, wide-ranging Guardian interview by no less than shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, herself attempting to build bridges with the Biden administration.

Ms Nandy’s boss Sir Keir Starmer has gone out of his way to avoid taking sides on culture war issues, yet here was one of his deputies inviting us all – including those in Number 10 – to work out who is and isn’t woke and what this often toxic clickbait word means.

So out of genuine curiosity, I used this question of whether Mr Biden is woke to explore just how far Mr Johnson – perhaps not a natural ally of the new leading Democrat in the past but attempting to be so now – was willing to go to side with his US counterpart.

The answer began with studied surprise: “I can’t comment on that. What I know is that he’s a fervent believer in the Transatlantic Alliance and that’s a great thing and a believer in a lot of the things we want to achieve together and in so far as there’s nothing wrong with being woke.

“But what I can tell you is that it’s very, very important for everybody and I would put myself in the category of people who believe it’s important to stand up for your history and your traditions and your values and things you believe it.”

A cautious answer, therefore, showing Mr Johnson is still feeling his way with how to characterise the politics of his stateside counterpart. In doing so he managed to inhibit most points on the spectrum from saying there is “nothing wrong” with being woke to indicate his dissent with it.

Mr Johnson will need many skills to build bridges with the new US president, as interviews with three foreign secretaries who served when the new president was Barack Obama’s deputy have revealed.

Lord Philip Hammond, who was foreign secretary under David Cameron, told me: “I don’t think they’re going to become best buddies. Probably from the Biden administration POV, BJ will have been a bit too close to President Trump in terms of political positioning and outlook for that, but I think they’ll have a perfectly sensible relationship.”

He said if the president and the prime minister do not have that kind of relationship, that doesn’t mean the UK/US relationship stops.

Asked whether this was the case when Theresa May was meeting Mr Trump, Lord Hammond said: “I have to agree with you that there was no evidence there was a very strong relationship. I think that was a good example of how the US/UK relationship to some extent.. to quite a large extent.. runs under its own momentum because of all the multiple contacts and connections we have at all sorts of levels.”

Nor should Mr Johnson raise expectations too high for a trade deal.

“I’m afraid to disappoint some people but I think all the signals are that it will not be a high priority for the Biden administration. We’re not ideally positioned to make an offer which attracts the sort of urgent attention of the US, to be very honest,” he said.

Lord William Hague, who spent longer than anyone else working alongside Mr Biden, said this does open up the possibility of Western leaders sharing ideas together in a way that hasn’t really happened in the years of the Trump administration.

“The biggest thing in the coming year is climate change. And there we have a British prime minister and an American president who are completely aligned, who want that summit in Glasgow later this year to be a big success.

“This is not just Britain providing a room for a conversation by the rest of the world. Britain will have to broker an agreement and come up with new ideas if necessary to break deadlocks. Here the Biden admin will really be looking to the diplomatic skill and resourcefulness of the UK,” said Lord Hague.

Lord Hague said Britain would be more attractive to the US if it worked closely with the EU.

He said: “I think Joe Biden would welcome a closer co-operation so that when the EU is taking any action in its neighbourhood, Britain is automatically consulted and invited to join in on that. But this is compared to the big (scene) of those two summits I mentioned (the COP climate change summit and the G7) – I think these are going to be quite small worries.

“The bigger worry would be if those things didn’t go well.”

Meanwhile, David Miliband, the last Labour foreign secretary, said Mr Johnson should modify his style.

“The prime minister obviously shouldn’t make any jokes. This isn’t a joking time. He shouldn’t play to his image. He should show that he understands the seriousness of the times,” he said.

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