The Special Relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States was always going to be a little different in Joe Biden’s tenure.
In his first words to the British people as president-elect, an impromptu response to a question from a BBC reporter, he gave a hint of his true feelings: ”The BBC? I’m Irish,” he quipped, before briskly walking away without another word.
It got off to a rocky start under the leadership of Boris Johnson, whom Biden had called a “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump in 2019. It continued with disagreements over the status of the Irish border as the result of complications from Brexit.
And it looks set to continue under the new leadership of Liz Truss, who is set to meet with Biden in her first bilateral meeting with the US as prime minister on Wednesday.
It so happened that in the days ahead of the sitdown, both leaders were focused on selling their respective economic agendas to domestic audiences — Ms Truss in a preview of her first mini-budget, and Mr Biden in campaign mode for the midterms. And it so happened that those agendas are diametrically opposed.
Speaking to reporters ahead of her departure to New York, Ms Truss said of her forthcoming economic plan: “Lower taxes lead to economic growth, there is no doubt in my mind about that.”
The very next morning, Mr Biden tweeted: “I am sick and tired of trickle-down economics. It has never worked.”
The timing could be a coincidence, perhaps. But a fundamental disagreement about how to help their citizens, coupled with a laundry list of political and ideological differences that touch on trade and borders, do not bode well for the future of US-UK relations.
It was not always thus. In the 1980s, Britain and the US were in lockstep on their economic policy. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, once described as “political soulmates,” helped strengthen the special relationship when they both sought to shrink the size of the state, turbo boost privatisation and reduce taxes. After their first meeting, Mr Reagan wrote in a letter to the then-leader of the Conservative Party: “You have an enthusiastic supporter out here in the ‘colonies.’”
But as close as Reagan and Thatcher were, Mr Biden and Ms Truss are as opposed. While Ms Truss sees herself as an heir to Thatcher, Mr Biden has involved Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Mr Biden has governed on the premise that massive government investment and higher taxes for the wealthy would result in a stronger economy. He passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March 2021 in an effort to jumpstart the US economy after the slump of the pandemic. In August of this year, he passed another spending bill that would invest some $260bn over 10 years to reduce climate emissions and lower healthcare costs, while also raising taxes by $326bn in the same period.
Ms Truss’s prescription for economic growth, meanwhile, involves cutting taxes and removing limits on bankers’ bonuses. She said that she was prepared to be an unpopular prime minister in order to fulfil her vision.
“What is important to me is that we grow the British economy, because that is what will ultimately deliver higher wages, more investment in towns and cities across the country, that is what will ultimately deliver more money into people’s pockets, and it will also enable us to fund the services like the National Health Service,” she told Sky News.
“And in order to get that economic growth, Britain has to be competitive,” she added.
And while Mr Biden is raising taxes on the rich, Ms Truss is going the other way.
“I don’t accept this argument that cutting taxes is somehow unfair,” she told Sky News.
“I mean, what we know is that people on higher incomes generally pay more tax. So when you reduce taxes, there is often a disproportionate benefit because those people are paying more taxes in the first place,” she added.
Ms Truss will also be heading into the meeting with Mr Biden without any expectation of striking a trade deal with the US, which was a key aim of both of her predecessors and a Brexit campaign pledge.
The Irish border will also likely be high on the agenda. Ms Truss has indicated that she plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol in legislation to rewrite the Brexit agreement struck with the European Union. Mr Biden has raised concerns previously that the imposition of border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland would undermine peace agreements between the two sides.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that Northern Ireland would be a focus of the talks.
Mr Biden “will encourage the UK and the European Union to work out a practical outcome that ensures there is no threat to the fundamental principles of the Good Friday agreement,” Mr Sullivan said, referring to the 1998 agreement that paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland.
The two will have at least some common ground, however. After the US, Britain has been one of the top contributors of aid to Ukraine in its effort to repel Russia’s invasion.
Ms Truss said her priority for the meeting was “making sure that we are able to collectively deal (with) Russian aggression,” and ensuring “we are not strategically dependent on authoritarian regimes.”
“I want to work with our allies like the United States, like France, the EU, the Baltic States, Poland to take on the challenge we face from Russian aggression,” she said. “That should be our priority.”