No 10 takes relaxed view as Biden removes Churchill bust from Oval Office

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Downing Street says it is up to the US president to decorate White House room as he wishes

The bust of Winston Churchill, pictured in January 2017, when Theresa May met Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, at the White House.
The bust of Winston Churchill, pictured in January 2017, when Theresa May met Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, at the White House. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

Downing Street has said it is up to Joe Biden how he decorates the Oval Office, after it was reported that a bust of Winston Churchill, lent by the UK government, has been removed.

“The Oval Office is the president’s private office, and it’s up to the president to decorate it as he wishes,” Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said, adding: “We’re in no doubt about the importance President Biden places on the UK-US relationship, and the prime minister looks forward to having that close relationship with him.”

Johnson’s relaxed attitude is in marked contrast to his criticism of Barack Obama, when the former president moved the Churchill bust aside.

Writing in the Sun in 2016, Johnson, then London mayor, and the author of a Churchill biography, called Obama’s decision a “snub,” suggesting it may have been because of “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

A bust of Mexican American labour rights leader Cesar Chavez was visible in pictures of Biden signing executive orders on Wednesday.

The prime minister, who was referred to by Donald Trump when he was president as “Britain Trump”, is keen to strike up a strong working relationship with the socially liberal Biden, who the government hopes will attend the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June.

Johnson’s spokesman was forced to field a string of questions about whether Johnson is “woke”, after the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, described Biden as a “woke guy,” referring to his support for Black Lives Matter and trans rights.

Asked about her comments on Wednesday, Johnson appeared uncomfortable, before remarking that there was, “nothing wrong with being woke”.

When the prime minister’s spokesman was asked whether Johnson would consider himself “woke”, he said: “You would have to define that, but you’ve got the PM’s views on what he believes, and specifically on his agenda to level up across the country, and ensure that everybody has the opportunity to succeed.”

The Conservatives believe publicly rejecting socially liberal policies such as the removal of historic statues with colonial connections will help them to score points over Labour.

The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, has said he will legislate to prevent historic statues being removed, “at the hand of the flash mob” or by a “cultural committee of town hall militants and woke worthies”.

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Johnson’s remarks about Obama, made during the buildup to the Brexit referendum, caused a furore. It subsequently emerged that Obama had simply moved the bust of the wartime leader – a loan from the UK government – to a spot in his personal residence.

When Theresa May rushed to Washington in early 2017 to be the first world leader to visit Trump in the White House, he swept her into the Oval Office to show that Churchill had been restored to prominence.