You can tell that British farmers will be betrayed by Boris Johnson by the way he promises to look after them. The prime minister has pledged support equivalent to forfeited European subsidies. He says the sector will be safe from cut-price competition when new free trade deals are signed. He has told Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, that he would “rather die” than hurt her members. Really? Death before cheap beef? Maybe Johnson can honour those pledges, but it would be out of character.
It would also defeat the purpose of Brexit for many Tory MPs. “Take back control” signalled many things to voters, but to Eurosceptic ideologues it meant liberation from the EU’s common external tariff. Having trade policy run from Brussels was proof of Britain’s colonisation by continental bureaucrats. Deals with non-Europeans are the prize for emancipation.
That is why Liz Truss, the trade secretary, is determined to secure a zero-tariff agreement with Australia in time for next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall. The economic benefits would be marginal – shifting the growth dial by 0.02% over 15 years. But as a trophy for the “Global Britain” chest it is priceless. Other ministers – Michael Gove at the cabinet office and the environment secretary, George Eustice – fret about the impact on domestic producers who cannot compete with Australian mega-farms. Welsh and Scottish rural communities are especially vulnerable. Ministers who worry about the future of the union fear a fresh pot of nationalist grievance brewing.
Johnson’s instincts are with the libertarians. His promises to farmers are as reliable as the assurances he once gave businesses in Northern Ireland that Brexit would erect “no barriers of any kind” to trade across the Irish Sea. He lied. The prime minister likes to be the giver of good news, and will satisfy that appetite (in himself and his audience) sooner than serve unpalatable truth.
The deal with Australia will be done. UK farmers will be told they have nothing to fear because current food safety standards will still apply and tariffs will be phased out gradually. Agriculture will continue in the British countryside, but its scale and character will change over time. Competition will generate new rural businesses and bankruptcies. That is how markets are supposed to work in the free-trade Brexit model – a stimulus to innovation; creative destruction. Tory MPs tend not to phrase it that way to farmers in their constituencies.
The Australian deal will be most consequential in setting expectations for what might be conceded when the time comes to do a deal with Washington. That is the holy grail of post-Brexit deals. Cabinet rows over antipodean livestock are just a rehearsal for a battle that will erupt when US demands land on the table.
The underlying tension is between the electoral tactics that delivered Brexit and its ideological genesis. Johnson’s appeal to his party is rooted in Euroscepticism as an agenda for deregulation and buccaneering adventure on the high seas of globalisation. His Commons majority was won by appealing to voters whose economic and cultural demands point inwards, to a policy of Britain-first protectionism. In campaign mode, Johnson managed to package that as one coalition. Government requires choices that pull it apart.
Such stresses are a routine feature of trade politics in the US. Candidates at state and federal level are steeped in arguments about the consumer benefits of cheap imports and jobs lost to offshoring. This only feels new to Westminster because for a generation the action was in Brussels. If MPs had better understood what was coming their way, they might have fought harder for powers of scrutiny, amendment and veto of future deals. Congress has vast leverage over a US president in such matters. The European parliament has more say in EU trade policy than the Commons can contribute to anything Johnson signs.
Trade agreements are international treaties and, as such, concluded by royal prerogative. There is a procedural mechanism by which MPs might, in theory, thwart ratification, but it has never been tested. And by then it is too late to change the actual terms of the deal. Brexiteers might call this a restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, but it looks a lot more like concentration of quasi-monarchial power in the hands of the prime minister.
In economic terms, autonomy in trade deals is no compensation for the loss of frictionless access to the EU single market. That exclusion is also a strategic downgrade. Brussels is a place where international standards are set, as is Washington; also, increasingly, Beijing. London is not in that club. Lord Frost, the minister for Brexit loose ends, last week told a committee of MPs that it was an “over-simplification” to carve the world into three rule-making superpowers and that Britain might also count alongside the US, the EU and China. No veteran of trade wars believes him.
It is a story that Brexiteers tell to justify a move that looks historically misjudged and outdated. The Eurosceptic idea of Britain as a global hub and free-trade evangelist was conceived in a different era. It is a hybrid of imperial nostalgia and late-20th century market utopianism. It took a generation for Tory acolytes of that cult to achieve their total victory in English politics, by which point the rest of the world had moved on.
The US has no reason to indulge Johnson’s fantasies. A cosmetic trade deal to make Brexit look clever is not a priority for Joe Biden. He is interested in rehabilitating a transatlantic alliance that Donald Trump vandalised, to which end Britain’s insistence that it is something other than European is unhelpful: economic vanity and geopolitical stupidity.
Johnson has never been one for diplomacy, perhaps because it involves tact and relationships built on trust. His speeches rarely contain foreign policy or even references to other countries, except as caricature or metaphor. “As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind,” he told last year’s virtual Tory conference. It was the only glimpse of a world beyond British shores. The only reference to the EU was a false accusation that Labour is “scheming” to rejoin the bloc. There was no mention of the US, China, Russia, India or Africa.
Johnson’s agenda is more parochial than he likes to imagine. He does not weigh trade deals in terms of jobs or growth but as rhetorical props in the great Brexit showcase. Who will pay for the production is an issue for later. For now, “Global Britain” is a performance put on for a domestic audience by a prime minister with his back turned to the real world.