Boris Johnson has declined to commit to securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the US by the next election, ahead of his talks with Joe Biden in the White House.
The Prime Minister said he has “plenty of reason to be optimistic” about getting the free trade agreement (FTA) which was touted by Leave supporters as a major prize of departing the European Union, but noted Americans “do negotiate very hard”.
His concession on Tuesday came after suggesting trade negotiations are not a priority for the US president, who he accepted has “a lot of fish to fry”.
The Prime Minister arrived at Union Station in Washington DC to welcome the “very good news” that Mr Biden had pledged to double US funding to help vulnerable countries fight the climate crisis, with Mr Johnson having pushed for increased spending.
But the Vote Leave figurehead earlier downplayed the prospects of getting a trade deal by the next election, raising the possibility that he could leave Downing Street without achieving a key ambition for the post-Brexit era.
Asked if he would get the deal by 2024, the Prime Minister told Sky News: “We will keep going with free trade deals around the world including in the United States.
“I have plenty of reason to be optimistic about that. But the Americans do negotiate very hard.”
Mr Johnson spoke to broadcasters on the terrace of a skyscraper in New York, where he has been attending a UN summit, before getting the train to Washington DC for his first visit to the White House since Mr Biden succeeded Donald Trump.
Mr Johnson is expected to discuss the stalled trade talks with Mr Biden, as well as what further efforts they can take to address the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister conceded Britain and the US could have possibly taken a different course over the withdrawal of troops of Afghanistan.
“America has been there for 20 years and it’s a respectable argument to say that enough is enough. Look, I mean, could we have done it a bit differently? Maybe we could,” the Prime Minister told American broadcaster NBC.
The Prime Minister had pleaded with the president to push back his deadline for drawing down all US troops after the Taliban marched back to power.
But Mr Biden rejected the request, meaning potentially thousands of vulnerable Afghans who worked for the UK and their families were left behind.
Travelling on an Amtrak train to DC, Mr Johnson had been buoyed by the announcement the US will drop the blanket ban on travellers arriving from the UK due to the coronavirus crisis.
However, No 10 appeared blindsided by Monday’s announcement, raising questions over the state of communications between the White House and Downing Street.
Just one day before the end of the ban was announced, Mr Johnson was downplaying to reporters any expectations that he could “crack” the issue this week.
Aboard the RAF Voyager on the flight to New York, Mr Johnson also seemed negative about the prospect of getting a trade deal in place any time soon.
“On the FTA, the reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry,” Mr Johnson told reporters.
In the run-up to the EU referendum in 2016, then-president Barack Obama warned Britons they would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deal if they voted for Brexit.
The EU departure also presents a quandary to the Prime Minister’s relationship with Mr Biden, who is vocally proud of his Irish heritage and has warned there will be no trade deal if peace in Northern Ireland is jeopardised by the EU departure.
A major diplomatic row has also broken out over a new military pact between the UK, US and Australia because it scuppered a multibillion-dollar contract for France to provide submarines to Australia.
France took the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra, but declined to do the same from London, accusing the UK of being America’s lapdog.
After meeting Mr Biden and vice president Kamala Harris in the White House, Mr Johnson will have dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Washington.