The Prime Minister will have to pick sides as he faces trade talks with both US and EU
Boris Johnson is adamant that Britain can forge a closer relationship with the US after Brexit, without weakening its ties to Europe. But even before the UK leaves the EU at the end of this month, the Iran crisis has already shown what a tricky task that will be.
The fact that Donald Trump did not tell the Prime Minister about the mission to assassinate Qassem Soleimani until after it happened has been taken as a sign the “special relationship” is not in the best of health, despite the alliance between the two leaders.
In his response, Mr Johnson has been careful not to criticise the US President directly, or to say that he was wrong to target the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
But his decision on Sunday night to issue a joint statement with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel is a sign that, this time at least, the Prime Minister is siding with his European rather than American allies.
The UK, France and Germany have previously led the effort to save the Iran nuclear deal after Mr Trump withdrew from it last year. And the joint statement indicates the three countries will continue to work together on the issue, even when they find themselves opposed to the US.
Bridge between Europe and America
The transatlantic divide shows how difficult it will be for Mr Johnson to continue to position the UK as a bridge between Europe and America. The Prime Minister is being urged by his Cabinet to open simultaneous trade talks with the US and the EU, enabling Britain to play the two sides off against each other.
But on trade, just as on Middle East policy, there will be times when Mr Johnson has to pick a side. For example – will Britain keep European regulations on products such as agricultural goods, allowing farmers to continue to export freely to the EU? Or will the UK instead open its doors to cheaper American imports, which would inevitably lead to strict checks at the border with Europe?
One of the Tory leader’s most cherished values is a burning desire to be liked. But recent events will have reminded him he cannot continue to be all things to all men indefinitely.