Boris Johnson has signalled his support for a trade deal with Australia that scraps all tariffs on meat imports, insisting it would offer British farmers a “massive opportunity” to export their beef and lamb.
The Prime Minister on Wednesday weighed in on the row engulfing his Cabinet, which is bitterly split over how much access to offer Australian farmers in a bilateral free trade agreement.
He will chair a crunch meeting of Cabinet colleagues at 8am Thursday morning to thrash out the Government’s red lines on the issue ahead of the final round of negotiations with Canberra.
Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, backed by Brexit minister Lord Frost and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, are inclined to agree to zero tariffs and zero quotas on agricultural goods in order to secure a deal with Australia. They favour phasing out tariffs over a decade, allowing UK agriculture time to adjust.
However, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, and Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, are concerned about a backlash from British farmers who fear being undercut by cheap Australian meat imports. The two cabinet ministers are understood to want a longer 15-year period to phase out tariffs, with some levies remaining after that deadline.
Mr Eustice is said to have advanced a “compromise” proposal that would allow tariff-free imports, but with quotas attached. However, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer dismissed the idea outright, telling Times Radio: “Zero tariffs with quotas isn’t free trade, and that’s not going to happen. Australia would never agree with that.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Johnson came under attack from both SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs who voiced their alarm over the impact of the prospective trade deal on Scottish beef farmers and Welsh lamb farmers.
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, warned the “disastrous” proposals would throw Scottish agriculture “under the Brexit bus”.
Mr Johnson hit back that Mr Blackford “grossly underestimates” Scotland’s “ability to do great things with our free trade deals, to export Scottish beef around the world”.
The Prime Minister added: “Why doesn’t he believe in what the people of Scotland can do… Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think there’s a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK.”
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP, accused Mr Johnson of “backing Australia’s farmers” and urged him to “permanently rule out tariff-free access for Australian lamb and beef imports”.
The Prime Minister swerved the question, stressing instead the opportunities for UK agriculture entailed by a free trade agreement and urging opposition MPs to show more “ambition”.
He said: “I will back Britain’s farmers and Welsh farmers in exporting their fantastic lamb around the world.” It is “disgrace” that “not a single morsel of Welsh lamb has passed the lips of the Americans in the last 20 years” due to the trade barriers, he added.
Later in the day. Ms Truss offered assurances that British farmers “will not be undercut by unfair practices from elsewhere” under the terms of any future trade deal.
She told MPs on the Commons International Trade Committee that the Government would “make sure in all the deals we do that British farming thrives” and said she was “absolutely confident” this would be achieved through the prospective deal with Australia.
Negotiators are “currently in a sprint with a view to getting to agreement in principle by early June”, she confirmed. The hope is that a deal in principle will be secured by the second week of the month, when Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, is in the UK for the G7 summit.
Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary also pledged that the deal under negotiation “will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards”, while Downing Street said any pact would “include protection for the agriculture industry”.
Australia meanwhile hit back against claims that a trade agreement could drive British farmers out of business, branding the suggestion “beyond absurd”.
In a strongly worded letter to Tory MPs, the Australian High Commissioner George Brandis criticised “wild claims” that a deal could lead to beef and lamb from his nation flooding the UK market.
Accusing opponents of running a “scare campaign”, he said there was “no significant excess in capacity” and added: “Almost all of Australia’s exportable beef and lamb is already spoken for.”
He warned it would send a “catastrophic signal” if Britain “pulls up the drawbridge” – warning that doing so could scuttle efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bloc of 11 fast-growing Pacific nations. Membership of the partnership is regarded as a key post-Brexit prize.