Boris Johnson accused of making UK an ‘embarrassment’ over Australia trade deal

Boris Johnson has been accused of making the UK an ‘embarrassment’ after blundering into a £10billion trade deal concession to Australia in farcical scenes.

Over a chaotic dinner in No 10, an Australian official reportedly even cobbled together an agreement on his way to the loo, which was later signed by Mr Johnson before the final course.

Liz Truss, the then international trade secretary, is said to have been later told : “Your boss has conceded the whole kingdom.”

Darren Jones, the chair of the Commons Business and Trade committee, said the events would “make our professional trade negotiators weep … this is just an embarrassment.”

David Henig, a leading trade expert who helped set up the government’s Department for International Trade after the 2016 Brexit vote, told the Independent that under Mr Johnson the UK had become seen as a “soft touch”.

The scenes, first reported by the Politico website, were even picked up internationally. Former US trade official Wendy Cutler said it underscored the detailed nature of trade talks and the “danger” of having “one’s leader at the head of the table”.

Mr Johnson was reportedly bounced into signing a climbdown on a key post-Brexit agreement after the Australians seized on a howler over meat import quotas during negotiations.

One Australian official even made an excuse to go to the No 10 loo, had Mr Johnson’s concession hurriedly drawn up into a formal agreement and took it back to the dinner, where the then-PM signed it.

In an extraordinary move, Mr Johnson is said to have told the Australians, who included the country’s prime minister, the move was because he wanted to apologise to them for Britain joining the EU 50 years ago.

A furious Ms Truss who tried to unstitch the deal was reportedly told by the gleeful Australians that her boss Mr Johnson had already “given away the kingdom”, according to a former minister involved in the talks.

Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with Australia has long been controversial.

It has been condemned as a sell-out by British farmers, while former environment secretary George Eustice has said the government “gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

According to the report of the 14 June 2021 dinner, Mr Johnson agreed to measure beef imports by the weight of only cuts of meat, rather than the entire cow, which is much heavier.

Australian high commissioner George Brandis scrawled down the unexpected bonus and fled to the loo. On the way he gave the piece of paper to an aide to scan and turn in a trade document – before it was returned to the dinner for Mr Johnson to sign.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said the Politico reports were “total nonsense”, but the website site said it had spoken to five senior people involved in the negotiations on either side.

One former Truss adviser told the publication he did not think Mr Johnson was across the detail adding that the dinner “was very slapdash – and ultimately ended up giving more on beef.”

Advisers said Ms Truss wanted the talks reopened – but Australian PM Scott Morrison threatened to “tell the media the UK was going back on its first post-Brexit trade deal”.

Alexander Downer, who was Australia’s high commissioner until 2018, defended the deal and said the weights issue was a “minor detail” among the benefits that would be provided by the agreement.

But Mr Henig said the chaotic nature of how the Australia deal was done “obviously doesn’t look good for the UK,” he said. “Under Johnson our reputation was that we’d sign anything, as evidenced by the deals with the EU and Australia.”

Labour said the “chaos and absurdity” had let down business, especially farmers.

Shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government had a “terrible record on trade negotiations. Either delivering bad deals or no deals at all.

“Rishi Sunak has admitted as much, calling their Australian deal ‘one sided’, whilst the former DEFRA Secretary says ‘the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return’. The chaos and absurdity of the Conservatives has badly let down British businesses, especially our farmers.”

UK government lawyers reportedly continue to quibble with the Australian side over beef import weights until the deal was signed in December 2021.

Some degree of compromise was achieved by making sure the agricultural safeguard – designed to slow imports after 10 years if there is a rapid surge – used the carcass weight equivalents initially wanted by British officials.

The post-Brexit deal, which came into force this week, is forecast to boost bilateral trade between the countries by around £10bn a year by 2035. But farmers remain angry at the generosity of tariff-free quota access given to Australian beef.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said the concessions were “a real breach of trust and confidence for farmers”, saying: “The anger is still visceral.”

A spokesperson for the NFU added: “We know the government gave away much more than they needed to, and this illustrates it.”

International trade minister Nigel Huddleston told farmers that the government had “got their backs” and there were safeguards in place.

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