What happens next in British politics could mean a significant shift in the United Kingdom’s trade ties with the United States – but the hurdles are many and the process to reach results could be lengthy. Voting in the Conservative Party leadership contest closes today, with the winner and successor to UK Prime Minister Theresa May to take up position on 24 July. The two Tory leadership rivals, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the incumbent foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, both have been calling to strengthen the U.S.-UK “special relationship” as they vied for the support of 160,000 Conservative Party members. Frontrunner Boris Johnson has pledged to seek an ambitious UK-U.S. trade deal as one of his first acts in office. This would be good news for the more than 40,000 U.S. companies exporting to and operating in the UK, many of which are negatively impacted by uncertainty over Brexit and the possibility of an economic rupture between the UK and the European Union. If – as expected – UK Prime Minister Theresa May hands over the reins to Boris Johnson in two days, a highly topical question will be how his premiership might fare in securing a U.S.-UK trade deal.
On the U.S. side, there is strong political support by the Trump Administration and some Members of Congress for a U.S.-UK trading alliance. Several steps already have been taken to strengthen the Anglo-American trading relationship and mitigate negative impacts of Brexit. In February this year, a U.S.-UK Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) was concluded, which rolls over relevant aspects of the existing U.S.-EU MRA, covering electromagnetic compatibility, telecommunication equipment and good manufacturing practice of pharmaceuticals. U.S.-UK agreements on derivatives and insurance also have been agreed. These would take effect immediately after the UK exits the EU in an EU-UK “no deal” Brexit scenario or at the end of a transition period in a “deal” scenario. UK-U.S. preliminary talks on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) spanning the last two years, however, have failed to show any meaningful progress and are considered to be deadlocked. Should the UK leave the EU without a deal at the end of October, World Trade Organization (WTO) terms would govern U.S.-UK trade until such time as a trade deal is agreed.
Much hinges on the UK’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU, which still remains a priority for the UK. As Boris Johnson pursues hardline rhetoric on Brexit, insisting both that the current EU-UK deal needs to be renegotiated – which EU leaders reject – and that the UK will leave the EU on the scheduled date of 31 October 2019, with or without a deal, it is difficult to predict how the UK-EU trading relationship will unfold in the coming months.