White House

UK’s Boris Johnson to White House: Buy our shower trays and Scottish haggis

Prime minister tells Pence his country’s National Health Service is off the table

Then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in the Capitol. Johnson is now the British prime minister and Corker has left the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday offered some cheeky — but pointed — criticism of the United States and its trade practices, telling Vice President Mike Pence he wants to rip down “barriers” that keep British goods out of the massive American market.

Johnson also echoed his predecessor, Theresa May, by stating clearly that any potential U.S.-U.K. trade agreement would not include changes to his country’s National Health Service.

“It is still the case that, you know, the United States of America, the people of the United States of America, don’t eat any British lamb or beef or haggis from Scotland,” Johnson said during a meeting with Pence at 10 Downing Street in London. “I think there are still barriers to trade in shower trays.

“We think we could free up the U.S. market,” the already embattled prime minister said as he battles Parliament over how the UK should exit the European Union. “I know that you guys are pretty tough negotiators, so we’re going to work very hard to make sure that that free trade deal is one that works for all sides.”

Those accounts came from a reporter in the press pool traveling with Pence, who also noted the VP turned to the American media contingent and grinned as Johnson spoke.

[Trump drags ‘Sharpiegate’ into second day as latest self-inflicted wound festers]

Trump administration officials are closely monitoring how Johnson might orchestrate a British exit from the European Union, also known as “Brexit.” That’s because President Donald Trump prefers pursuing trade pacts with individual countries, though the only one he has sent Congress is a proposed pact with Canada and Mexico; he claims to be “close” to one with just Japan, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has said key details remain unresolved.

Administration officials cannot get serious with UK officials until a “Brexit” deal with the EU is in place — or London simply leaves, something experts warn could trigger economic calamity.

Pence responded to Johnson by saying he spoke this morning with Trump, who sent this message: “‘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.’”

The VP felt a need, according to the pool report, to offer his own version: “Again, to make it clear to you, that the United States supports the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U., and we’re ready to build this economic relationship immediately.”

Johnson replied: “Fantastic.”

But the early stages of trade talks have not always gone smoothly.

Johnson on Thursday sent a message to Trump, via Pence, that he will not touch his country’s vastly popular health service as part of any future trade negotiations.

[About Trump’s North Carolina Hurricane Dorian emergency declaration...]

“We will make sure that we do everything to increase free trade. But there is the National Health Service — always worth saying, with UK media — the National Health Service is not on the table, as far as our negotiations go.”

In June, Trump was forced to climb down from remarks he made alongside May that he might push for NHS changes to help American companies be more competitive in the U.K. market.

“I don't see it being on the table. Somebody asked me a question today and I say everything is up for negotiation, because everything is but I don't see that being,” the U.S. leader told “Good Morning Britain” on ITV in an interview that aired June 5. “That's something that I would not consider part of trade. That's not trade.”

That cleanup was required after U.K. and international media outlets used descriptions such as “backlash” to describe the reaction there Tuesday after Trump told reporters the previous day he expected the health system — in place in England, Scotland and Wales since 1948 following World War II — to be covered during negotiations.

“Look, I think everything with a trade deal is on the table. … When you’re dealing in trade, everything is on the table — so, NHS or anything else,” Trump said during a joint news conference with May. “There are a lot — a lot — more than that. But everything will be on the table, absolutely.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.