Ministers have been involved in a “ferocious” row over the possible terms of a new UK-Australia deal, amid warnings British farming could suffer “irreversible damage” as a result of the eventual agreement.
According to reports, the division in government centres on whether to grant tariff-free access to Australian farmers – something favoured by both the international trade secretary Liz Truss and Brexit minister Lord David Frost.
However, the environment secretary George Eustice and the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove are said to have warned against the domestic political fallout of agreeing to such terms and a backlash from the farming industry.
“There is an absolutely ferocious row going on in Whitehall over the Australia deal with real pressure to get it resolved by the end of this week. Gove and Eustice are on one side, Truss and Frost on the other,” a source told the Financial Times.
Earlier this year, the government announced the UK and Australia had reached a “consensus on the vast majority of elements” of a free trade agreement, with both countries entering a “sprint” to agree outstanding issues by June.
Minette Batters, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president, said, however, that British farming would struggle to compete if zero-tariff trade on lamb and beef went ahead, warning: “This trade-off needs to be balanced, and we need to make sure concessions to our hugely valuable home market are not given away lightly.
“There is a very real risk that, if we get it wrong, UK farming will suffer irreversible damage rather than flourish in the way we all desire, to the detriment of our environment, our food security and our rural communities.
“If we go down this road, I fear that it will be a complete betrayal,” she said. “As a precedent deal, it is absolutely essential that the government holds the line.”
The shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, said the “fault lies squarely” with Ms Truss if she fails to negotiate a trade deal with Australia “on the terms she herself proposed last year”.
“So instead of blaming her cabinet colleagues or the National Farmers’ Union for these difficulties, she should get on with her job, and deliver the deal that she promised,” the frontbencher added.
“It’s perfectly normal that the Australian government should try to get the best possible deal for its agricultural mega-corporations. But British family farmers have a right to expect that Liz Truss will do the same for them, not sell out their livelihoods for the price of a quick trade deal, and a cheap headline at the G7 summit.”
The Department for International Trade did not deny the internal row had taken place, but a spokesperson said they would “not comment on speculation” when approached by The Independent.
Quizzed on the report during a broadcast round for the government, Mr Eustice said there was always a “balance to be struck between your commercial interests and your desire to open up free markets” in any trade agreement.
He said: “There are huge amounts of things that a country like Australia produces that are currently subject to tariffs because that’s what we had in the European Union, but where actually we’re not even a producer, and we can offer them tariff-free access in those areas – everything from nectarines to almond nuts, where they are a big producer and also, of course, wine.”
However, the minister declined to elaborate on “discussions that are going on in government about individual trade agreements”.
“In any discussion on any part of government policy – a trade agreement is no exception – there’s a discussion and then there’s a consensus. At the moment there is a clear consensus in government we want to do a trade deal with countries like Australia, but obviously on the right terms.”
Pressed on whether he had had any “robust” discussions, Mr Eustice replied: “I have very good discussions with all of my cabinet colleagues on all issues that we’ve got a shared agenda.”
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade told The Independent: “We do not comment on speculation. Any deal we sign with Australia will include protections for the agriculture industry and will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.
“A deal with Australia is an important stepping stone to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and membership to this free trade area will allow UK farmers even greater access to growing consumer markets in Asia. We will continue to work with the industry, keeping them involved throughout the process and helping it capture the full benefits of trade.”