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Trump and Johnson’s Complex ‘Bromance’ Is Underscored by Pence Visit

LONDON — Battered by serial defeats in Parliament, scolded by members of his own party, abandoned by even his own brother, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain looked this week like someone who could use a friend.

He got one Thursday — or at least a faithful understudy — in the person of Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Pence met Mr. Johnson at 10 Downing Street to pass along President Trump’s support of the prime minister’s plan to pull Britain out of the European Union.

Mr. Trump himself offered Mr. Johnson a long-distance pat on the back Wednesday as Mr. Johnson battled a recalcitrant Parliament, telling reporters, “Boris knows how to win.”

These days, however, Mr. Johnson does not look like much of a winner. He suffered back-to-back defeats in Parliament on his call for an election and his vow to withdraw from the European Union, with or without a deal, by Oct. 31. On Thursday, his own brother, Jo Johnson, resigned from Parliament and the government, saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.”

Friendship with Mr. Trump is also a fickle thing. He was friendly with President Emmanuel Macron of France until the two men fell out over Iran and climate change, among other issues. Mr. Johnson, as foreign secretary under Prime Minister Theresa May, unsuccessfully lobbied the White House not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump dangled again, via Mr. Pence, the prospect of a profitable trade agreement with the United States.

“He told me this morning,” Mr. Pence said. “He said, ‘You tell my friend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that we’re ready to go to work on that free trade agreement just as soon as you’re ready.’”

Mr. Johnson appeared gratified — “fantastic,” he interjected at one point — but also wary of a bearhug from a leader who remains deeply unpopular in Britain. The meeting, which could have been an anodyne display of support, instead captured the complexities of Mr. Johnson’s “bromance” with Mr. Trump.

While Mr. Johnson welcomed Mr. Pence’s promise of trade talks, he said, “You guys are pretty tough negotiators, so we are going to work very hard to make sure that the free trade deal is one that works for all sides.”

Critics of Mr. Johnson say that a post-Brexit Britain, particularly if it leaves without a deal, would be so heavily dependent on the United States that Mr. Trump would be able extract punitive terms in any negotiation.

Under Mr. Johnson, these people say, Britain’s prized public health system would be pried open by American insurance and pharmaceutical companies, while the United States would force British shoppers to buy chlorine-washed poultry that falls below European standards.

“We’re not too keen on that chlorinated chicken,” Mr. Johnson said. “We have a gigantic chlorinated chicken of our own here on the opposition bench.”

His reference was to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, whom Mr. Johnson referred to as a “chlorinated chicken” during a debate in Parliament on Wednesday after he challenged Mr. Corbyn to back a snap election.

During Mr. Trump’s visit in June, he first signaled that everything would be on the table in a trade negotiation. But he later walked back his words under intense pressure from his British hosts, excluding the health care system.

On Thursday, Mr. Johnson took pains to reiterate that “the National Health Service is not on the table.” He also reminded Mr. Pence of American trade barriers against British agriculture and other exports.

“The people of the United States of America don’t eat any British lamb or beef — or haggis from Scotland,” the prime minister said. “There are still barriers to trade in shower trays, if you can believe it, from the U.K.”

For Mr. Johnson, the politics of his relationship with Mr. Trump have always been tricky. Mr. Johnson has played up his ties to reassure voters that if Britain leaves the European Union, he would be well-placed to hammer out a trade agreement with his friend in the White House.

For his part, Mr. Trump has been steadfast in his support of Mr. Johnson’s aggressive approach to the Brexit negotiations, including his threat to leave without a deal. Mr. Pence has echoed that position.

If Mr. Johnson finds himself, in a few weeks, locked in an election against a Labour Party eager to paint him as a lackey of Washington, analysts say he may have to distance himself from what Mr. Pence celebrated as “the very warm and personal relationship you have forged with President Trump.”

Until now, Mr. Johnson has taken a studiously respectful tone with the president. It is hard to imagine him joking with Mr. Trump about “chlorinated chicken” the way he did with Mr. Pence. In their meeting on Thursday, Mr. Pence stuck to a script, as he usually does, while Mr. Johnson joked, interrupted his guest and spoke casually — playing a role almost like that of Mr. Trump.

Source: NYT > World News

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