30 November 2022

Badenoch defends Australia trade deal after criticism by former minister

30 November 2022

Kemi Badenoch has conceded that deadlines in negotiations are “unhelpful” as she faced questions about high-profile criticism of the post-Brexit trade deal with Australia.

Appearing before the International Trade Committee, Ms Badenoch was forced to defend UK free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand after stinging criticism from former environment secretary George Eustice earlier this month, who said that the Australian agreement “was not actually a very good deal” as the UK “gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

The new International Trade Secretary said: “I disagreed with what he said about it not being a good deal for the country. That is absolutely not true. I do think deadlines can be incredibly unhelpful in negotiations. We saw this with Brexit.”

“But if the other side knows you have a deadline, they are able then to hold out or be more difficult which creates an incentive to create more concessions.”

Asked if she would have negotiated the same deal with Australia, she rejected the premise of the question that the UK had conceded ground on the deal.

“We haven’t given anything away,” she said, arguing that trade negotiations are not “tit-for-tat” or “zero sum”.

“The deal isn’t even in place yet and we’re already talking it down,” she told the committee.

She said that Australia was an ally and should not be discussed as a country that is “going to ruin our economy”.

Ms Badenoch also denied there were tensions between Defra and the Department for International Trade, as she appeared before the committee.

“George Eustice said that this was a good deal. He may have said something different, but he is disagreeing with himself as much as he is disagreeing with any other department.”

In one of his first major contributions as a backbench MP, Mr Eustice spoke about the need to recognise the “failures” of the Department for International Trade (DiT) during the negotiations with Australia.

The former environment secretary said the UK did not actually need to give Australia nor New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep as “it was not in our economic interest to do so”.

Mr Eustice also called for the interim permanent secretary for the Department for International Trade to quit, after telling the Commons his approach during the negotiations was to “internalise” Australian demands even if they were against UK interests.

Ms Badenoch defended Crawford Falconer, who appeared alongside the secretary of state in her first outing before the Commons committee since taking over at the department.

She opened proceedings by telling MPs that she would take a “different” approach than her predecessors to the role.

“I would like us to move away from (the Department for International Trade) being seen as the department for free trade agreements and back to the department for international trade,” she said.

Questions over the impact of Brexit on the UK economy came from committee chair and SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, who grilled the minister for exact GDP benefits from post-Brexit trade deals.

Ms Badenoch, who admitted that “change is difficult”, told MPs: “Asking for a number for something that is not a number question is not going to work.

“If that was the case, you wouldn’t need to have me here. You could just have a computer programme and press a button, and then get the number.”

The Government is still in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with India after a target of securing a deal by Diwali last month slipped while Ms Badenoch also appeared to acknowledge that a trade agreement with the US is currently out of reach.

“We wanted a US free trade agreement. When we made those statements we had a president who wanted to do a free trade agreement. There is now a new president who does not want to do any free trade agreements with any countries. It is not about the UK,” she told the committee.

The secretary of state also admitted that staff morale and dis-satisfaction over pay remained an issue in the department while also noting that overseas staff in some countries were having a particularly difficult time.

While she did not name any particular countries, she said: “In some countries, it is actually becoming very difficult because of increasing tensions between the UK generally and those countries.

“If you can imagine, places that are still implementing zero Covid, being a staff member working in that kind of place.”

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