Brexiteer MP admits Australian trade deal is 'not actually a very good …
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A former Tory minister has admitted a Brexit deal he backed at the time is "not actually a very good deal" and people are fuming.

Speaking in the commons yesterday, George Eustice, who was Defra minister under Boris Johnson, said "the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return" with the Australia deal and called for a senior civil servant to resign.

"Since I now enjoy the freedom of the backbenches, I no longer have to put such positive gloss on what was agreed," he said.

He said that “unless we recognise the failures that the Department for International Trade (DIT) made during the Australia negotiations, we won’t be able to learn the lessons for future negotiations” like ones happening with Canada.

The first step, he said, is “to recognise that the Australia trade deal is not actually a very good deal for the UK”, adding: “It wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.”

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"It has to be said," he added, "the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return".

The Australia deal is one of two signed by the UK since Brexit. Signed, on 17 December 2021 when Liz Truss was in charge of DIT, the government said the deal would unlock £10.4bn of additional trade while ending tariffs on all UK exports and removing some visa rules. The other deal is with New Zealand.

Eustice went on: “The UK went into this negotiation holding the strongest hand, holding all of the best cards, but at some point in early summer 2021, the then trade secretary (Truss) took a decision to set an arbitrary target to conclude heads of terms by the time of the G7 summit, and from that moment the UK was on the back foot repeatedly.

“In fact, at one point that then trade secretary 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.”

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,” he said.

“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.”

This is all very well but at the time the deal was signed, he had told the commons: "Australia is a very important partner of ours, it's important that we get a trade agreement with them. It is of course a smaller economy and the opportunities are therefore not as large as they would be with a large economy but nevertheless Australia is an important ally and this is a good agreement between us."

While ministers have to defend the decisions of the government they work for at the time, people were fuming at him for not speaking up sooner.

Labour MP Chris Bryant said: "As entertaining as it is to hear George Eustice spill the beans that the trade deals with Australia and New Zealand are bad for the UK, a lot of UK sheep and beef farmers will be angry that successive Tory ministers gave up their industry as enormous unnecessary concessions."

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: "Glad Eustice is finally telling the truth, but why on earth didn’t he resign? Many of us warned at the time that it was a disastrous deal & would shaft our farmers, yet he defended it as Environment Secretary. Barely a year ago he said it was 'a good agreement'."

Dragon's Den businesswoman Deborah Meaden said: "Shame his wave of honesty didn’t come in time to prevent the damage."

And SNP MP Pete Wishart said: "This is quite extraordinary. They knew it was a crap deal. They knew they were letting down sector after sector. They just didn’t care until they were out and it was too late."

Responding to Eustice's speech in parliament, 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.”

It is a simple and fundamental principle that the government derives its democratic legitimacy from the people. The future of the country must not be decided by plotting and U-turns at Westminster; it must be decided by the people in a general election. And for this reason The Independent is calling for an election to be held. Have your say and sign our election petition by clicking here.

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