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 Donald 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 Tuesday and Wednesday, with the opposition Labour 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.