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Under Keir Starmer, the UK and the US are back in sync, but for how long?


This is a carefully planned great power drama – or more accurately, a drama of the encounter between a middle power and a great power.

“You are now connected to Air Force One,” the White House operator said. Keir Starmer Number 10 Downing Street released a brief video on Saturday showing the British prime minister hunched over a speakerphone.

“Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister,” said President Biden, who flew to Wisconsin for a campaign rally. “This is an incredible victory!”

The two leaders spoke passionately about the importance of the UK-US “special relationship”, their shared commitment to defending Ukraine and their upcoming meeting: Mr Starmer will travel to Washington on Tuesday, where Mr Biden is hosting a NATO summit.

Not since Barack Obama’s first term have both the White House and Downing Street been controlled by centre-left parties at the same time. This could herald a new era of harmony in transatlantic relations after years of frustrated hopes over Brexit, Northern Ireland and a trade deal for Britain.

It could also be a short-lived era. The U.S. election in four months could return Donald J. Trump to the presidency, and he has an uneasy relationship with Britain’s center-right leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, let alone with her center-left counterpart.

Diplomats and analysts say managing Britain’s relationship with one of its closest allies during a time of uncertainty will be a thorny challenge for Starmer, who faces a Democratic president who is on the defensive even within his own party and a Republican successor who will disagree with him on core issues from Ukraine to climate change.

Labour Party Landslide victory That would normally be good news for Biden. British voters are used to anticipating political change in the United States, whether it was Margaret Thatcher’s election a year before Ronald Reagan’s or the Brexit referendum in 2016, five months before Trump’s election.

But Starmer’s victory, while overwhelming, came with its share of problems, not least a strong showing by the anti-immigrant Reform Party, led by Nigel Farage, an outspoken Trump ally. Biden has his own problems, more to do with actuarial tables than political cycles.

“For this administration, it’s all about hedging against who will be the Democratic nominee, hedging against whether Donald Trump will be elected, and what U.S. policy will be, no matter who is elected,” said Leslie Venjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House.

Starmer even has to weigh how to respond to issues like the outcome of the U.S. election, she said, especially if the result is close and goes against Trump. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden on winning the 2020 election — a result Trump continues to dispute without any evidence — Trump reacted angrily and held a grudge against Netanyahu.

Given that context, diplomats prefer to focus on what Starmer can accomplish with Biden over the next six and a half months. The two men agree on issues such as military support for Ukraine, aggressive government action to curb climate change and closer ties between Britain and the European Union.

Analysts say the final decision could be a real game changer, given the strains in the transatlantic alliance before the Brexit vote, with Obama warning Britons they would be “back of the line” for trade deals if they voted to leave the EU.

“Political relations have been strained since the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, not least because of the risks Brexit poses to the smooth implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland,” said David Manning, the last British ambassador to Washington under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Good Friday Agreement was a 1998 agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

“This is an opportunity for a fresh start,” he said.

Starmer will be accompanied to Washington by his foreign secretary, David Lammy, who has a close relationship with Obama and both graduated from Harvard Law School. Lammy and his boss do not hold out much hope of a trade deal given the Biden administration’s lack of appetite for such a deal.

But Mr Starmer is likely to ease lingering tensions over Northern Ireland, which is embroiled in the often-adversarial negotiations between Britain and Brussels over the terms of Brexit.

The question irritated Biden, who proudly celebrates his Irish ancestry and has frequently warned previous British governments against actions that would jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement.

Starmer, who made his first visit to Belfast since becoming prime minister on Monday, described Labour’s victory as a reset for Northern Ireland and pledged a relationship of “respect and cooperation”.

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, said the difference between dealing with Labour and Conservative governments was like “day and darkness”.

Tensions in Northern Ireland had eased even under Starmer’s predecessor, Rishi Sunak, who struck a deal with the EU last year on trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Analysts say bigger sources of tension could arise over issues such as business relations with China, where the Biden administration has urged Britain and other allies to take a more combative approach.

“The UK needs economic growth,” Ms. Vijaymouli said. “Choosing between the United States and China is not a good option for the UK.”

Analysts say Trump would not care about Northern Ireland if he is re-elected, but he would be unhappy with Starmer’s efforts to get closer to Europe. Trump has had a friendly relationship with any of the prime ministers, and his closest relationship is with Boris Johnson, who has clashed with the European Union and has a slight resemblance to Trump’s own populist style.

This is not to say that leaders of opposing parties in the UK and the US cannot work together. After all, Obama issued his Brexit warning at the request of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for a referendum but opposed Brexit. Blair was famous for supporting Bush’s Iraq War, and Bush even relied on Blair to negotiate with other leaders on his behalf.

“Bush did find it useful to consult with Blair to set the tone,” Manning said. “It’s hard to imagine Trump wanting that kind of relationship, but a lot will depend on what approach he will take toward America’s traditional transatlantic partners.”

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