Rishi Sunak’s big US pitch: Ukraine tops agenda (but don’t mention a trade deal)

Rishi Sunak was making his big pitch to Joe Biden on Thursday to burnish the special relationship ties between Britain and America in his first Oval Office talks with the president.

The war in Ukraine was set to top the agenda, with the UK having led the West in supplying arms to Kyiv to fight back against Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

The Prime Minister’s White House visit comes at a crunch time in the conflict, amid reports of Ukrainian forces seizing the initiative in a series of front-line battles thought to be part of the long-awaited counter-offensive. Its success, or not, could shape the outcome of the war. The two leaders were expected to also discuss the growing threat from China, artificial intelligence and Mr Biden’s inflation reduction act, a massive package of tax breaks and subsidies seeking to boost US green industries, which has been criticised as protectionism.

Crucially, they were also seeking to move on from the more fraught trans-Atlantic relations under the brief premiership of Liz Truss and of Boris Johnson, with tensions over their confrontational approach to Brexit and the Northern Ireland trade row.

They were laid bare when Mr Biden recently told a Democrat gathering in New York that he had travelled to Northern Ireland in April, for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, to make sure “the Brits didn’t screw around” over the Brexit trade row, comments which were condemned by Tory MPs.

Mr Sunak yesterday opened his two-day Washington visit by laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

He met key congressional leaders, including Republican house speaker Kevin McCarthy, as well as business leaders, before being guest of honour at a Major League Baseball game celebrating US-UK ties. The Prime Minister watched Washington Nationals take on Arizona Diamondbacks.

Fans were treated to a military flypast and both God Save the King and the Star Spangled Banner were played by Royal Marines and US military bands.

Mr Sunak mingled with players before the game and wore a Nationals jacket as he was cheered onto the pitch. The ceremonial first pitch at the UK-US Friendship Day was thrown by British army veteran Stuart Taylor after Downing Street rejected the idea of Mr Sunak throwing the ball in front of thousands of spectators.

“These sorts of things are pitched to us from time to time,” quipped the Prime Minister’s spokesman.

But it was instead thrown by Mr Taylor, chief executive of the Allied Forces Foundation, as this was seen as “the most appropriate way of highlighting the breadth and depth of the UK-US relationship, particularly focusing on service personnel and veterans,” Downing Street stated.

Ahead of the talks between the two leaders, Washington was gripped early this morning by a fresh frenzy over Donald Trump’s bid for a return to the White House amid growing signs that the justice department may be moving towards a possible indictment over the former president’s mishandling of classified documents. Hundreds of classified documents were allegedly found at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida after he left office.

Mr Trump has already been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a historic case over allegations he orchestrated hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 US election. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mr Sunak and Mr Biden have already had four face-to-face meetings since he became Prime Minister in October. But the Oval Office talks were expected to be their most intense discussions yet.

Ahead of the meeting, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the 15-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “top of mind”.

US and British intelligence chiefs are still trying to establish who blew up the Soviet-era Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro river, flooding vast areas of eastern Ukraine and forcing thousands to flee their homes. Mr Sunak said yesterday that Britain was still assessing the evidence, but “if it does prove to be intentional, it will represent a new low… an appalling barbarism on Russia’s part”.

America and Britain are the two biggest donors to the Ukraine war effort and play a central role in a long-term project announced last month to train, and eventually equip, Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets. Given the fast-spiralling fears over the potential harmful impact of artificial intelligence, Ms Jean-Pierre added: “The president and the Prime Minister will also discuss the joint US-UK leadership on critical emerging technologies as well as our work to strengthen our economic security.”

Britain is to host a global summit on AI safety later this year, No10 said, which would examine the risks it posed and how they can be mitigated through internationally co-ordinated action. Mr Sunak’s detailed and measured approach to fraught issues, notably the Windsor Framework deal on Northern Ireland trade, are understood to being going down well in Washington.

He was also expected to make the case to Mr Biden for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to succeed outgoing Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is set to end his term leading the 31-member alliance in September. But the prospects of a US-UK free trade deal, promised by Brexiteers, was not expected to be a major part of the discussions, if at all, given that it is widely believed to have been shelved.

The chairs of the congressional-executive commission on China, Republican representative Chris Smith and Democratic senator Jeff Merkley yesterday wrote to Mr Sunak asking him to work with the Biden administration on Hong Kong policy and push for the release of tycoon Jimmy Lai and other activists.