Joe Biden on Monday described the UK-US relationship as “rock solid” at talks in Downing Street with Rishi Sunak, in spite of differences emerging between the two sides ahead of this week’s Nato summit.
The US president’s decision to send cluster munitions to Kyiv is at odds with Britain’s opposition to their use, and Number 10 said the UK prime minister had “discouraged” their deployment during talks in London.
Downing Street said Britain, as a signatory to a convention banning cluster weapons, was obliged to “discourage” their use by non-signatories, but privately British officials said talks on the issue were amicable.
Meanwhile, the US and Germany are under intense pressure from other allies to show greater support for Ukraine’s eventual membership of Nato.
Washington and Berlin have backed a form of words for the summit’s concluding statement that does not fully endorse a “pathway” to membership of the security alliance, let alone invite Kyiv to join once the war is over — as demanded by Ukraine’s staunchest supporters in eastern Europe.
Downing Street said Sunak believed Ukraine’s “rightful place is in Nato” and that it was working with allies to create a “pathway” for it to join, while recognising Kyiv could not accede while the war with Russia was ongoing.
However, Number 10 insisted that there was no difference in approach to the issue between the US and UK. Referring to reports of a split, a spokesperson for Sunak said: “I don’t believe that’s accurate.”
During his meeting in the Downing Street garden with Sunak, Biden said he “couldn’t be meeting with a closer friend and greater ally”.
Both leaders stressed a common determination to carry on arming Ukraine in its war against Russia; the UK and US are the two biggest donors to Kyiv’s military operations.
Biden arrived at Stansted airport near London on Sunday night and met both Sunak and King Charles during his short visit before heading to the Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, later on Monday.
British officials privately admitted that Biden’s main reason for stopping over in Britain was to meet the monarch at Windsor Castle, affording a photo opportunity traditionally beloved of US presidents.
Biden did not attend the King’s coronation this year — US presidents do not usually attend such events — and discussed climate change with the monarch over tea. He was greeted by the band of the Welsh Guards.
Biden’s visit came little more than a month after Sunak met him at the White House and marked their fifth meeting in five months. “We covered most of the ground we needed to cover in Washington,” said one UK official.
Sunak and Biden also briefly discussed the Northern Ireland peace process after Brexit and the recent agreement to reform post-Brexit trading rules for the region, the so-called Windsor framework.
Britain and the US are generally aligned on foreign policy and recently concluded the Aukus defence pact with Australia in a push to counter China’s growing military might.
Last week, Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, brushed off criticism that Biden had not attended King Charles’s coronation in May. “He had a call with the King and congratulated him,” she said.