Covid is getting the headlines, but a trade agreement with the US is fast taking shape. And it does not look like a good deal, says FRANCIS BECKETT.
Britain is being fattened up for a trade deal with Donald Trump designed to strengthen his chances of re-election in November.
The latest move is the Agriculture Bill, which has passed all its stages in the House of Commons and is due for its second reading in the House of Lords on June 10, and which effectively removes both food standard safeguards and protections for British farmers.
Its significance lies, not in what it says, but in what it does not say. The most important farming legislation in generations, it was the opportunity to replace EU food safety standards and protections for rural industries with a home-grown version.
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, tabled an amendment to protect UK farmers from low-standard food imports. It would have prevented future trade deals from allowing food into the UK which was not produced to the standards required of our own producers.
The government ensured its defeat by 328 to 277 votes. Parish could muster only 22 Conservative colleagues to vote for it. And only one brave Conservative MP – Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and the Weald – voted against the unamended Bill. Conservatives with rural constituencies, who have previously expressed serious concerns about the Bill, fell into line.
A former Ulster Unionist MEP, Jim Nicholson, says it is potentially ‘the last nail in the coffin for agriculture in Northern Ireland’ because ‘it opens the floodgates to cheap food imports into the UK from around the world. This food will not have been produced to the same standards achieved consistently by farmers in Northern Ireland.’
This means, among other things, the famous chlorinated chicken. An RSPCA report explains: ‘The problem the EU has with chlorinated chicken is that antimicrobial treatments can be used to compensate for poor hygiene along the supply chain, particularly on farms for example. Ever since 1997, member states of the EU have refused to accept imports of chlorine-treated poultry and this has been a point of contention with the US. The EU maintains that chemical washes are a form of quick-fix covering up for lower treatment standards, including lower animal welfare standards.’
US chickens are raised in such cramped conditions that the only way to stop them arriving on our dinner tables diseased is to dunk them in chlorine.
The government has pressed ahead despite opposition from all the food producers, including the British Poultry Council and even the National Farmers’ Union, normally a loyal Tory ally. ‘The most significant deficiency with the Bill is the absence of any commitment or means of upholding British farming production standards in the context of international trade negotiations’ an NFU statement says.
‘The NFU believes that it would be futile to develop a comprehensive and ambitious domestic support policy, simply for UK farmers’ efforts to be undermined through the importation of products not produced to the same level of environmental or animal health/welfare standards expected of them domestically.’
Farmers Weekly columnist Jacob Anthony puts it bluntly: ‘The fact that the majority of the people running this country are happy to use agriculture as a bargaining chip has left me and many other farmers furious.
‘We have trusted the elected politicians to protect our industry, as well as the country’s food security. However, they have now made a decision that is likely to have a major impact on our ability to remain competitive and keep our businesses afloat.’
The government ignores this because the Bill is one of the building blocks paving the way for a quick and grubby deal with Trump. Another building block is a swift end to the brief love-in they have been forced to undergo with the public sector during the Covid crisis.
In his first speech after returning from illness, Boris Johnson went out of his way to say: ‘Without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country, there will be no economy to speak of, there will be no cash to pay for our public services, no way of funding our NHS.’
He meant: we have to be nice to the public sector right now, but in the long run, only the market matters. So while businesses and charities are being helped through the crisis, local government has been told by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, that they will receive no extra help with the additional strain on services caused by the pandemic, and the huge hole in income from airports, public transport, parking, and everything else local councils do. Some are likely to issue Section 114 notices, in effect declaring bankruptcy.
As long ago as 1989, the late Roy Jenkins asked: ‘May we be left uneasily poised… between the US and continental Europe, without the private generosity of the former or the more adequate public funding of the latter?’ It’s actually been worse than Jenkins feared. We have lurched crazily between the two, and Brexit is the biggest lurch of all.
Keir Starmer told me when I interviewed him for these pages that Johnson’s likely trade deal with the US was ‘not just swapping one trade deal for another, it is swapping one set of values, principles and standards for another set of values, principles and standards, and the whole economic model of this country will be affected by it.’
He said: ‘We are about to veer forcibly in the US direction and it will have real implications for our economic model. We are by geography and history European, and the more so since the end of the Second World War. Rule of law, common standards, threshold standards, conflict resolution. That’s the platform that was built up after the second world war. To shift away from that at this moment is quite profound.’
Whether Johnson has personally thought all that through, we cannot be sure, but Dominic Cummings has.
And he knows it’s urgent. Never mind that there’s a crisis on – the deal has to be done now, while Donald Trump still needs some sort of triumph to offer his electors in November.
Otherwise, Trump might lose, and this would be a disaster for the Johnson government; for Johnson cannot be sure that Joe Biden won’t take the same view as his old boss, president Obama, who warned before the referendum: ‘Maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done… The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.’
Obama knew, and Trump knows, the deal was going to matter far more to the UK outside Europe than to the US. The US economy is six times as big as ours, and the US accounts for 13% of our exports, while we only account for 3% of theirs.
For Trump, a UK trade deal is mainly valuable because it can be used as leverage when negotiating a deal with the EU. Ministers say they hope to maximise our reach in global data and artificial intelligence, in line with the Conservative Party’s manifesto; to sell professional services, food processing and car manufacturing; and to benefit small and medium sized enterprises in mostly unspecified ways. For Trump it’s a luxury. For the UK, if we stick to the deadline of the end of this year, it’s an insecure lifeline.
That’s why the government was prepared to stake all on keeping Dominic Cummings, but not lift a finger to keep epidemiologist professor Neil Ferguson as a scientific adviser. Ferguson only knows how to fight the virus. Cummings knows something really important: how to deliver a fast Brexit and dress up a US trade deal to look as though it was a replacement.
The government wants us to think it’s focused on Covid. In reality, it’s focused on turning us at breakneck speed into the sort of place Donald Trump wants to do business with. Without Trump, its strategy disintegrates.