27 Aug

'When ScoMo met BoJo' Hans Van Leeuwen, The AFR

Biarritz, France | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a well known fan of Australia - and keen for trade deals - so it's no surprise he was up for a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the G7 summit, even though he was one of the hottest tickets in town.

The timing was everything though. Was it really a coincidence that it had to wait until after the third Ashes Test was done?

Displaying true British politeness, Mr Johnson knocked back the opportunity to gloat over England's win the previous day - even when Mr Morrison bowled him the most gentle of looseners.

"Congratulations on the Ashes," Mr Morrison said as they shook hands as leaders for the first time, in front of the cameras on Monday morning (Monday evening AEST).

"Well, we've got two to go. We're not taking anything for granted," Mr Johnson straight-batted back. He is English after all - cricketing pessimism is in the genes, right?

Actually, maybe not under Mr Johnson. He's trying his hardest to inject a bit of can-do optimism into Britain's Brexit melancholia, a drumbeat of positivity to drown out what he calls "the doomsters and gloomsters".

It's not hard to imagine Mr Johnson picturing himself as Brexit's Ben Stokes - the cricketing hero of the hour - starting from a seemingly hopeless position and bludgeoning his way through to the result he wants.

His Brexit bravura certainly convinced Mr Morrison. "I tell you, if you sat in that room with him this morning, you’d be absolutely convinced of it [Brexit], you’d be pretty certain of it," he later told reporters.

Once the banter was out of the way, Mr Morrison and Mr Johnson got stuck into their 40-minute meeting without any Ashes rancour. Well, maybe not quite: Mr Morrison later told reporters there had been "sledging", but it had been "very modest, I must say".

Mr Johnson knows how to get a laugh and put people at ease, and it was clear Mr Morrison succumbed to his charm.

“It was a very enjoyable and very lively affair,” Mr Morrison said with a chuckle. "I very much enjoyed our meeting, let’s just say that. We’re going to have a great relationship."

The pair unpacked the anticipated gamut of issues: the joint military action to secure shipping lanes in the Straits of Hormuz, the global economy, prospects for a free-trade agreement (FTA), cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, coordination on the South China Sea, and concern over Hong Kong.

Both men waxed enthusiastic about kicking off formal FTA talks after Brexit on October 31, with Mr Morrison pointing to the abundance of "low-hanging fruit we can move very quickly on".

"I was encouraged by the Prime Minister's confidence in being able to work through the Brexit process. When they do, we will be there," he told The Australian Financial Review.

Warm words, but Mr Morrison's enthusiasm for an FTA wasn't quite as voluble as that of fellow deal-seeker Donald Trump. The US president on Sunday promised Mr Johnson that “we’re going to do a very big trade deal - bigger than we’ve ever had with the UK”.

In response, Mr Johnson expressed concern that although the US was "gung-ho" for an FTA, Washington's trade envoys would be tough negotiators.

He didn't publicly voice the same concern about Australia's trade diplomats. Unfair, you'd have to say - but maybe it was just complacency, with that Ashes victory fresh in mind.

Hans Van Leeuwen, The AFR

 

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