Liz Truss’ blunt acknowledgement that a UK/US trade deal is unlikely anytime soon might be read as just one more inevitable Brexit betrayal – a promise made in haste for which Britain is now repenting at leisure – but it could also be a none-too-subtle attempt to signal her intention to press ahead with plans to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, to hell with the consequences.
On Monday as she headed to a United Nations meeting in New York, Truss said: “There aren’t currently any negotiations taking place with the US and I don’t have an expectation that those are going to start in the short to medium term.”
Uncharacteristically downbeat, and a sign that we are a long way from those heady days when Nigel Farage breezily claimed it would take Britain 48 hours to do a free trade deal with then-president Donal Trump, or when Boris Johnson said the UK would be “first in line” for a trade deal with the US.
Turns out former president Barack Obama was more on the money in when he said in 2016 that Brexit would see the UK go to the back of the queue. He was criticised by many at the time, but so it has come to pass. It’s a good job queuing is such a quintessentially British thing to do, as gushing commentators were apt to remind us repeatedly over these last days.
On Tuesday, Truss’ officials were briefing that she wanted to decouple trade talks from the protocol, but whatever the motivation – for her declaration or its timing – it is bad news for a struggling economy.
“There is no doubt that the blame for this mess lies at the door of the prime minister, who tarnished the UK’s international reputation as foreign and international trade secretary. This is an embarrassment for Liz Truss,” said Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds.
Perhaps, perhaps not; Truss seems impervious to feelings of shame. What is more relevant is how the absence of trade talks will affect her stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol – the most potentially explosive item in her overflowing in-tray.
“By accepting there will be no trade deal in any case, she is trying to imply that this removes the US leverage in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP),” said Chris Grey, emeritus professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and creator of the Brexit & Beyond blog.
“If so, it’s naive since the US has many other levers it can pull apart from the trade deal, and an approach to the NIP that puts the UK at odds with the EU and the US is profoundly foolish, irrespective of trade issues,” he added.
Truss is due to meet Biden on Wednesday and if trade talks are off the table, one can only assume one of the key topics of conversation will be her plan to pass the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow the UK to essentially tear up parts of an international treaty.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, is a key part of the 2020 Brexit withdrawal deal and is meant to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement by preventing the reintroduction of a land border on the island of Ireland. It ensures trade can continue across the border, but has brought in some new checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But now, the UK wants out of the agreement and Truss has proposed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is making its way through parliament and is expected to reach the House of Lords in mid-October. It proposes that goods from Great Britain which are staying in Northern Ireland would use a green lane, with no checks and minimal paperwork. London also wants any trade disputes to be resolved by independent arbitration and not by the European Court of Justice.
The EU says the bill would represent a clear breach of international law and it has already opened legal actions against London for failing to enforce the protocol and share data.
For Hilary Benn MP, co-convenor of the UK Trade and Business Commission, Truss’ stance on the protocol – even more hardline than her previous boss Boris Johnson – made a trade deal impossible.
“Given her determination to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol and break international law with her bill, it’s not in the least bit surprising that the prime minister has now been forced to admit that the long-promised US trade deal has been kicked into the long grass. She knows that there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Washington to what she is doing,” he said.
“Three weeks into her premiership and six years after the EU referendum, the big promise that we would quickly get a trade deal with the USA remains what it always was – a very distant prospect.”
Biden’s administration has made it very clear over the past months that it takes a dim view of threats of UK unilateral action on the protocol. Barely 48 hours after Truss took over from Johnson, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters: “There is a no formal linkage on trade talks between the US and the UK and the Northern Ireland Protocol, as we have said, but efforts to undo the Northern Ireland Protocol would not create a conducive environment.”
The issue is bound to come to a head in the coming weeks. There had been some media reports that Truss might ask the EU to extend existing “grace periods”, which waive some checks at Northern Ireland’s ports. But she must also have an eye to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is holding up the formation of a power-sharing devolved administration because it wants the protocol to be scrapped, even though most businesses say it is working, albeit imperfectly.
If the deadlock over the formation of a new executive is not broken by October 28, then new elections will have to be held in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic dance continues across continents. On Sunday, Truss met the Irish Taoiseach – or as she calls him, the “Tea-sock” – Micheál Martin, while US speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi met US ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin in Shannon airport to discuss “the importance of the UK & EU reaching a negotiated solution” on the protocol.
In New York, Truss is also due to meet French president Emmanuel Macron – presumably to place the Sorting Hat on his head to decide whether he is a friend or a foe – and she will also hold talks with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Observers say these discussions could be critical.
The jury is still out on whether Truss is going to seek out that negotiated solution she claims to want on the protocol or hold firm on getting everything she, and her ultra-Brexiteer European Research Group-backers, desire.
It’s not all bad news: the UK has struck two trade deals in the US – with Indiana and North Carolina. And there is a partnership deal with the state of Georgia. Still, it’s hardly the flood of free trade British voters were promised in 2016.
Truss – ever the one for a strategic, principle-defying pivot – says her interest has now shifted eastwards, with hopes for a trade deal with India by late October. She also wants a deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
How fortunate that the UK seems determined to keep human rights issues out of trade talks – as revealed by former trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Otherwise, things could have been awkward.