HE cuts an elderly figure, Joe Biden, but that assumed weakness has turned out, surprisingly, to be one of his key strengths. His inaugural address underlined why it is that he beat Donald Trump.

Crowned with soft white hair and occasionally stumbling over his words, he addressed the nation as a worried grandfather might his warring offspring. There was no hubris, no glaring self-regard on show from this president – decades of political and personal losses will cure you of that – and instead there was clear-sighted wisdom and conviction.

Centrists and political insiders, it turns out, have their uses after all.

A history of public service, decency, a moral compass and a reputation for bipartisan working make him a reassuring and welcome presence.

Meanwhile, we still have Boris Johnson.

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It may be too soon to conclude that the age of disruptors and populists is ending, but its novelty has long since worn off and the shortcomings of chancer politicians have become painfully clear.

At least when Donald Trump was in charge we could comfort ourselves that we did not have the worst leader in the G7 group of nations. Can we still say that? While the US tries to draw a line under its flirtation with populism, the UK must make do with Mr Johnson for perhaps another three years.

The Prime Minister has wasted no time ratting on his former ally to curry favour with the new president, describing Mr Biden’s election as “a step forward”, after a “bumpy period”. All Prime Ministers have a duty to try and forge a close working relationship with the White House, regardless of who occupies it, and the UK and US share a lot of common interests, but there is the whiff of desperation about Mr Johnson’s effusive welcoming of Mr Biden: salvaging any credibility from the badly battered Brexit project depends on persuading him to do a trade deal.

Is Mr Biden likely to be impressed? Perhaps not. He once described the Prime Minister as the “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump.

That may be a bit harsh, but Mr Biden is not being fanciful when he perceives parallels between the two, including a lack of obvious guiding political convictions (remember Mr Johnson’s for and against Brexit articles?), a willingness to undermine democratic norms and a taste for dog-whistle language when it’s expedient.

The Prime Minister and his political allies watched what worked for Donald Trump and instead of rejecting his tactics, refashioned them for their own use. Where Mr Trump told US Congresswomen of colour to “go home”, Mr Johnson compared women wearing a face veil to “bank robbers”.

Where Mr Trump said he would solve America’s flight of jobs with trade wars, Mr Johnson said Brexit would free Britain at last before ushering in a deal that has seen businesses mired in so much red tape that some face ruin. Where Mr Trump railed against his opponents, Boris Johnson prorogued parliament unlawfully to shut down dissent against a no-deal Brexit. Where Mr Trump used incendiary language to fire up his base, Mr Johnson used terms like “treachery” and “surrender bill” against pro-Remain MPs. Mr Trump rounded on the courts for suspending his Muslim ban, Mr Johnson and his allies for blocking prorogation.

It’s worth remembering these things, because our actions define us. This is who Boris Johnson is.

He is now scrambling to recast himself as a far-sighted statesman, a leader among leaders if you will, particularly on climate change. Government sources have been heavily briefing about the Prime Minister’s “enthusiasm” for tackling climate change and how he is looking forward to hosting COP26 in Glasgow in November.

But just as they were burnishing his green credentials, it was announced that his government had allowed a brand new coal mine to be opened in Cumbria. If that’s not enough to make you wince, try this: the UK government, along with Canada, was the founder of the Powering Past Coal Alliance in 2017, a group of nations aimed at persuading countries round the world to stop using coal.

Incompetent or unprincipled? With this government, it could be either. Mr Johnson’s many missteps in the handling of the Covid crisis have contributed to Britain’s tragic status as one of the worst-hit states in the world. It’s unsurprising that his YouGov approval rating stands at minus 15.

Other nations looked on appalled during the Trump years as the billionaire took the United States’ reputation and dragged it through the New York slush. But Britain too has seen its reputation slide. As a pitiless Theresa May set out in a Daily Mail article earlier this week, Mr Johnson has abandoned Britain’s “position of global moral leadership” with his threat to break international law by reneging on the EU withdrawal treaty and by retreating from Britain’s position as the only major economy to spend two per cent of GDP on defence and 0.7 per cent on overseas aid.

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These, she suggested with cold understatement, were “not actions which raised our credibility in the eyes of the world”, and added: “Other countries listen to what we say not simply because of who we are, but because of what we do. The world does not owe us a prominent place on its stage.”

Americans face a similar reckoning and Joe Biden gets it; indeed, he echoed Mrs May’s sentiment in his inauguration speech, when he promised that on the world stage America would not simply lead by the “example of our power, but by the power of our example”.

But Mr Johnson hasn’t got the message. The latest proof of his petty British nationalism is his government’s refusal to grant the EU ambassador to London full diplomatic status, even though 142 other countries do. Once again, the UK government appears to be taking its cue from Donald Trump, who downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status in Washington for nearly a year – though even he reinstated it.

Boris Johnson is a very different animal from the multilateralist progressive Mr Biden. A leader with undeniable chutzpah and personality, strip that away and you are left with an opportunist and some-time populist for whom occupying Number 10 has been an end in itself.

In his hands rests Britain’s international reputation.

Those pitying looks we used to cast across the pond? Perhaps we’d better get used to them.

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