'London Takes Washington Heat' by Michael Clarke

21st January 2020

I was quoted in The Economist this week in relation to Minister of Defence Ben Wallace’s comments that ‘the assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is really not where we are going to be’ – thus exposing some gaping holes in our ‘full spectrum’ defence posture. This, I was quoted as saying, was a ‘big moment’ of ‘remarkable candour; you won’t find that thought in any government defence or foreign policy document of the last 70 years’.

I wondered at the time if Mr Wallace’s line of argument was just an honest, but ill-advised, lapse into a simple truth that Whitehall has long known but thought better than to discuss in public. Perhaps not; because it begins to look like a pattern that is developing even in the first month of 2020.

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on 3 January posed a series of acute problems for Britain that the Prime Minister, still on holiday, seemed slow to appreciate. The European ‘E3’, under French initiative, mobilised quickly to try to play an independent role in holding the Iran nuclear deal together a bit longer and get the political temperature down. Britain was slow to join the E3, but nevertheless showed Washington where its own national interests lay. It seemed that, if pushed to choose, London was prepared to stick to the E3 grouping – widely derided in Washington – to maintain its own independence of action.

The same appears to be happening over the knotty decision over whether to go with Huawei technology in building Britain’s 5G network. US pressure over the issue has been intense – and arises from genuine American fears over the Chinese tech giant’s capacity to grip a western economy – but London refuses to be panicked into naturally following the US lead and is unconvinced that intelligence-sharing will realistically be threatened. Using Huawei components in the 5G network may or may not be a sensible decision, but after almost two years of prevarication, London has now made it clear that the decision, when it comes, will not be down to US preferences.

Not least, the US at the Davos meeting explicitly threatened Britain with painful trade tariffs if it went ahead in April with plans to tax the turnover (in Britain) of the predominantly US tech giants whose light feet avoid significant taxes everywhere. Again, the new government has indicated that it intends to go ahead in any case, and to blend its new taxation law with a more international approach via the OECD when (and if) that materialises.

The Johnson Government is facing the most transactional, and aggressive, US Administration anyone in London can remember – even including the turbulent Vietnam years. And each of the first three weeks of 2020 have created a new, weekly, issue where the US has indicated that it expects Britain to accede to its wishes, or else to its pressures. The Johnson Government has so far confounded most expectations by indicating that it is prepared to take some real heat from Washington on these matters. Maybe Ben Wallace was anticipating a bigger switch in Britain’s post-Brexit strategy than most observers assumed?