George Eustice brands Australia free trade deal a 'failure' in brutal swipe at Liz Truss

Sacked cabinet minister George Eustice has taken brutal revenge on Liz Truss by accusing her of blundering by rushing into a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand.

George Eustice, who was environment secretary under Boris Johnson but was sacked by Ms Truss when she became prime minister, claimed the deal was not good for the UK and blamed her.

His astonishing attack on Ms Truss, who was international trade secretary from 2019-2021, came in a devastating speech from the back benches during a Commons debate.

He began his onslaught by telling MPs there were "deep arguments and differences in cabinet" about how the government should approach the trade deal, which was agreed last year.

"But since I now enjoy the freedom of the back benches, I no longer have to put such a positive gloss on what was agreed," said Mr Eustice who, unlike Ms Truss, was a Brexiteer.

And he said: "Unless we recognise the failures the Department for International Trade made during the Australia negotiations, we will not be able to learn the lessons for future negotiations.

"The first step is to recognise that the Australia trade deal is not actually a very good deal for the UK, which was not for lack of trying on my part."

His speech also included a vicious attack on the trade department's top civil servant, interim permanent secretary Crawford Falconer, who Mr Eustice claimed was "not fit for that position".

The trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, was hailed by Mr Johnson when he announced it as a "new dawn" which would see British cars, Scotch whisky, biscuits and ceramics easier to sell.

'UK gave away far too much for too little in return'

But at the same time, it was criticised by the National Farmers Union as bad for British beef and lamb farmers. And an all-party group of MPs claimed it was a "politically expedient deal".

In his Commons speech, Mr Eustice - who is from a family of farmers - told MPs: "Overall, the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return.

"We did not actually need to give Australia nor New Zealand full liberalisation of beef and sheep. It was not in our economic interests to do so. And neither Australia nor New Zealand had anything to offer in return for such a grand concession.

"The UK went into this negotiation holding the strongest hand, the best cards, but at some point in early summer 2021, the then trade secretary took a decision to set an arbitrary target to conclude it by G7. From that moment we were on the back foot.

"At one point the then trade secretary asked her opposite number from Australia what he would need in order to conclude an agreement by G7 and of course he then set out his terms which eventually shaped the deal. We must never repeat that mistake."

Mr Eustice ended his speech with an astonishing broadside against Mr Falconer, in which - speaking with the benefit of parliamentary privilege - he said: "I have always been a huge fan of the British civil service.

'Not fit for position'

"But I do want to raise a comment about personnel within the Department for International Trade. Crawford Falconer, currently the interim permanent secretary, is not fit for that position, in my experience.

"His approach was always to internalise Australian demands, often when they were against UK interests, and his advice was invariably to retreat and make fresh concessions.

"All the while, he resented people who had a greater understanding of technical issues than he did. It was perhaps something of a surprise when he arrived from New Zealand to find that there were probably several hundred civil servants in the UK civil service who understood trade better than he did, and he has not been good, over the years, at listening to them.

"He has now done that job for several years, and it would be a good opportunity for him to move on and for us to get a different type of negotiator in place - somebody who understands British interests better than he has been able to."

At the end of the debate, newly appointed junior trade minister Andrew Bowie hit back at Mr Eustice: "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.

"I should also point out that 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."

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour's Shadow International Trade Secretary, commenting on George Eustice's attack on the UK/Australia trade deal, said: "It is clear that the Conservative Government's trade policy is in utter disarray. Even George Eustice, a Cabinet Member when the Australia Trade Deal was negotiated, has now agreed that 'the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return'.

"He is right to condemn this Government's approach. On trade the Conservatives have no strategy and they are - badly - letting down the UK, which will cost jobs, investment and growth. We can't afford this Government any longer and need a general election now."