Johnson tells farmers not to ‘fear free trade’ in row over post-Brexit Australia deal

Prime minister appears to back Liz Truss in Cabinet row, telling MPs that trade deals offer ‘great things’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 19 May 2021 13:14 BST
Boris Johnson tells farmers not to be ‘frightened’ of free trade with Australia

Boris Johnson has told farmers alarmed by the axeing of tariffs on Australian meat in a post-Brexit deal not to be “frightened of free trade”.

The prime minister appeared to back Liz Truss, the trade secretary, in the bitter Cabinet row, telling MPs that such agreements offered “great things” to farmers.

Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru warned the planned deal – if it offers free access to Australian beef and lamb, as expected – would ruin Scottish and Welsh farmers.

“Farmers will lose their livelihoods, rural businesses will collapse and families will be driven off the land,” Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, alleged.

Warning many Tory MPs “privately agree”, he urged Mr Johnson to “ditch a deal that would send our farmers down under”.

But the prime minister said the SNP “grossly underestimate their ability to do great things with our free trade deals” to export their own agricultural products.

“This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade around the world,” Mr Johnson told MPs.

The stakes could not be higher for what would be the UK’s first new trade deal since Brexit – which Ms Truss is desperate to seal before next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall.

Farming groups fear it would set a dangerous precedent for future agreements – particularly with the US – which would leave British farmers struggling to compete with cheap imports.

They are backed by George Eustice, the environment secretary, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, while Brexit negotiator David Frost is thought to side with Ms Truss.

Under the plans being negotiated, the tariffs of 20 per cent that Australia pays on all exports of beef to the UK would be cut to zero over the next 15 years.

Mr Gove is believed to be concerned that the controversy will boost support for Scottish independence, because farmers north of the border could be hardest hit.

But ministers backing the deal say tariffs are protectionist and scrapping them will cut prices in the shops - delivering a tangible benefit for leaving the EU.

A further controversy surrounds the effect on the climate emergency of encouraging greater meat-eating, when government advisers say the public needs to eat less.

At prime minister’s questions, Mr Blackford said: “As a member of Scotland’s crofter community I understand just how disastrous the Brexit trade deal with Australia as proposed by this Tory Government would be for Scotland’s farming and crofting sectors.”

But Mr Johnson teased the SNP leader as “a humble representative of the crofting community”.

“I don’t think that he does justice to crofters, to farmers across the country and in Scotland as well, because I think he grossly underestimates their ability to do great things with our free trade deals, to export Scottish beef around the world.

“Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think there’s a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK and he should seize it and be proud of it.”

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