Britain’s flagship post-Brexit trade agreement with Australia “was not actually a very good deal” and the UK “gave away far too much for far too little in return”, a member of the cabinet which pushed it through has admitted.
In a series of stinging remarks in the Commons, Johnson-era environment secretary George Eustice urged the government to recognise the Department for International Trade’s “failures” while negotiating what it hailed last December as a “historic” deal.
The agreements with Australia and New Zealand are the only new trade deals signed since Britain left the European Union, and the contracts sparked claims of a “betrayal” among farmers who feared being undercut by cheaper imports.
In his comments on Monday, Mr Eustice said that the UK “did not actually need” to give Australia nor New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep, and “it was not in our economic interest to do so” – echoing reports of his involvement in a “ferocious row” with Liz Truss over the matter at the time.
Relishing his newfound “freedom of the backbenches” after being relieved from his post by Ms Truss in September, Mr Eustice attacked the then-international trade secretary for “setting the clock against us” by imposing an “abitrary target” for the deal’s conclusion.
“From that moment the UK was on the back foot repeatedly,” Mr Eustice told MPs, accusing Ms Truss of having “asked her opposite number from Australia what he would need in order to be able to conclude an agreement by G7”.
“And of course the Australian negotiator very kindly set out the Australian terms, which then shaped eventually the deal,” he said – lamenting that this was despite the UK having entered negotiations “holding the strongest hand, holding all of the best cards”.
Mr Eustice also called for the resignation of Crawford Falconer, the interim permanent secretary for the Department for International Trade, who he claimed “is not fit for that position, in my experience”.
“His approach always was to internalise Australian demands, often when they were against UK interests, his advice was invariably to retreat and make fresh concessions and all the while he resented people who understood technical issues greater than he did,” Mr Eustice told MPs.
“He has now done that job for several years. I think it would be a good opportunity for him to move on and to get a different type of negotiator in place, somebody who understands British interests better than I think he’s been able to.”
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But a source close to international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch defended Mr Falconer as “having more than 25 years of experience, being “acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on global free trade” and “doing an exemplary job”.
“The deal we’ve done with Australia – which was collectively agreed to by a cabinet that included George Eustice himself – is set to unlock more than £10bn of trade,” they said.
The source insisted that Mr Eustice was “mistaken in his attack” and that “this deal will not damage British farming”, adding that “Australia and NZ have huge markets in Asia and do not use their tariff-free allocations”.
However, delighting to MPs that, as a backbencher, he no longer has “to put such a positive gloss on what was agreed”, Mr Eustice told the Commons that “unless we recognise the failures that the Department for International Trade made during the Australia negotiations, we won’t be able to learn the lessons of future negotiations”.
Pointing to “critical negotiations under way right now, notably on” the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and with Canada, Mr Eustice said it was essential that the government “does not repeat the mistakes it made”.
“And so the first step is to recognise that the Australia trade deal is not actually a very good deal for the UK,” the ex-minister said, adding that “the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return”.
Pointing to the CPTPP negotiations, Mr Eustice said: “The best thing that the minister can do is to go back and tell Crawford Falconer that I don’t care if it takes a decade to do this agreement, we will get the right agreement. We are not ever again going to put ourselves in such a position of setting the clock against us and shattering our own negotiating position.”
Closing the debate, trade minister Andrew Bowie said he listened “intently to his concerns regarding trade deals we are doing just now”.
But he added: “I am afraid I have to take issue and defend officials in the Department for International Trade, all of whom, without exception, are dedicated to bettering the trading relationship for this country and all of whom, without exception, have this country’s best interests at heart and are working day and night for this country.
“Australian and New Zealand beef and lamb suppliers are already working hard to satisfy demand from booming Asia and Pacific markets on their doorstep and New Zealand already has a significant volume of tariff-free access for lamb to the UK market, but used less than half of this quota in 2020.”
Shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said it was “clear” that the government’s trade policy is “in utter disarray”.
Additional reporting by PA