When he was heading out to the US on his RAF plane, Boris Johnson was distinctly pessimistic about the chances of any concrete diplomatic breakthroughs. The Prime Minister and his entourage saw the three-day tour of New York and Washington primarily as a staging post for the upcoming COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow.
One official on the trip said that after 18 months of virtual diplomacy, the main aim was to re-establish personal relations at last: “You need to see the whites of their eyes to make progress. Zoom is fine for introductions but it just doesn’t work for negotiations, when you need to get results.”
But the morning after Mr Johnson arrived, news broke that the US Government was lifting the travel ban on British and European residents. The policy had been near the top of the Prime Minister’s agenda – but he had warned that he did not expect to make much progress. That did not stop the Government insisting that it was its own lobbying that made all the difference.
Another win came on climate change: COP chief Alok Sharma, normally the most dour of all Cabinet ministers, could be seen walking around Manhattan beaming after the White House signalled it would double its commitment to green finance in the developing world.
Once again, Britain was keen to take credit even though it was unclear how much Mr Johnson had actually driven the outcome.
This meant that the Prime Minister’s meeting in the Oval Office with Joe Biden turned into something of a victory lap.
The event had been weeks in the making and the two sides repeatedly clashed over protocol: Mr Johnson’s request to walk up to the White House door rather than being driven was denied by the petrolhead Americans, while the Prime Minister apparently blindsided his host by inviting British journalists to pose questions to the pair at the beginning of their encounter, to the horror of the media-shy President.
No 10 officials were baffled when Mr Biden launched into a long, rambling anecdote about his love of Amtrak trains and a surreal encounter with a conductor (“the number three guy in New Jersey”) who used to call him “Joey baby” and keep a running tally of how far he had travelled by rail.
The President publicly shot down hopes that he would restart talks on a transatlantic trade deal – although he did concede that the ban on exporting British lamb to the US could end – and offered no hope on a resolution to the long-running Harry Dunn case.
But when they got behind closed doors, the mood improved: the Americans laid on multiple bowls of White House M&Ms, seen in diplomatic circles as the ultimate sign of presidential approval.
And Mr Johnson breathed a sigh of relief when he avoided a fresh Brexit bust-up over Northern Ireland: according to sources in the room, when they reached that part of the agenda Mr Biden said only: “You know my position on that,” and they swiftly moved on without having to air their disagreements. They also bonded over their shared astonishment at the fact that the Australians had failed to tip off Emmanuel Macron about the new Aukus security pact – Mr Johnson privately compared the French leader’s anger to that of a spurned lover.
Back in New York, the Prime Minister took advantage of in-person meetings to adopt his favourite diplomatic strategy of going firmly off script.
Mr Johnson was in his “happy place”, an ally said, adding: “These meetings are often very formal, and the PM likes to have a proper conversation – that’s where he can have an edge.”
Even the straight-laced President Moon of South Korea was drawn into some banter at one point.
As Mr Johnson gladhanded leaders, the new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also sought to make a splash on the world stage. She took her team along for early-morning runs over Brooklyn Bridge, convincing them to take action shots of her which will inevitably end up on her colourful Instagram page.
The Prime Minister’s last task before flying home on Wednesday night was to write his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Mr Johnson and his speechwriter David Blair left younger colleagues baffled while composing the address on the train between New York and DC as they traded memories of 1970s children’s television. In the end, the pair slipped in a reference to Kermit the frog – “it isn’t easy being green” – during a speech that was otherwise stuffed with dire climate warnings.