Two of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s closest cabinet allies are making simultaneous visits to the US in a sign of the importance the new British government has placed on strengthening bilateral relations with Washington after Brexit.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab and international trade secretary Liz Truss are meeting senior figures in US president Donald Trump’s administration this week to further efforts to strike a trade deal once the UK has left the EU.
Mr Raab met Mr Trump and vice-president Mike Pence on Tuesday evening, welcoming the “warmth and enthusiasm” from the White House for strong transatlantic relations.
“The UK looks forward to working with our American friends to reach a free trade deal that is good for both countries, and co-operating on the common security challenges we face,” he said.
Mr Raab is scheduled to meet Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, on Wednesday.
Ms Truss has met US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. She said: “Negotiating and signing an exciting new free trade agreement with the US is one of my top priorities.”
Mr Raab and Ms Truss are the first cabinet ministers to visit Washington since the resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the US Kim Darroch last month, following a diplomatic row over leaked cables which criticised the Trump administration.
Sir Kim opted to leave his post, in part due to criticism from Mr Trump but also Mr Johnson’s lack of support during the Conservative party leadership contest. Downing Street and the Foreign Office have yet to announce a new ambassador.
Mr Raab and Ms Truss’s hopes of striking a trade deal were boosted by a letter from 45 Republican senators, led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas, pledging that the US would do all it could to strike a bilateral trade deal, even if the UK left the EU without a deal.
“If Britain leaves the EU with no deal, we will work with our administration, your government and our friends in the EU to minimise disruptions in critical matters such as international air travel, financial transactions, and the shipment of medicine, food and other vital supplies,” the senators wrote.
But, potentially standing in the way of a deal are Irish-American politicians, who wield great influence over US trade policy. Richard Neal, a member of the House of Representatives, is the Democratic chairman of both the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus and the House ways and means committee, which holds the power to approve or block any US-UK trade deal.
Several US politicians with affiliations to Ireland have already explicitly warned that there will be no trade deal unless a “soft” border is maintained between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Peter King, a Republican representative from New York, said earlier this year that it was “important” that the current unmanned “soft” border on the island of Ireland be maintained “if the British want to consider any kind of trade agreement with the United States”.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania on the House ways and means committee, said earlier this year that it was “hard” to get trade agreements through Congress, and warned that reneging on the Good Friday Agreement could potentially damage trust between the negotiating partners.