Government forced to seek state-by-state US trade ties after Biden rejects post-Brexit deal

Labour asks why Britain ‘at the back of the queue’ for a free trade deal

Adam Forrest
Friday 18 February 2022 11:59
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Joe Biden plays down chances of striking trade deal with UK

Boris Johnson’s government is seeking a series of “mini” agreements with individual US states after Joe Biden poured cold water on the prospect of a free trade deal with the UK.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) said it was “exploring” ways to boost state-level ties in the hope of opening up new opportunities for British businesses.

But Labour accused ministers of “shifting the goalposts” on a promise to deliver a free trade agreement with the US after Brexit – claiming Britain now appeared to be at “the back of the queue”.

Mr Biden downplayed the prospect of a trade deal with the UK when he met Mr Johnson in September, when the prime minister was forced to admit: “Joe has a lot of fish to fry.”

The US president is understood to be reluctant to enter talks because of his concerns about the UK’s row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The White House said officials had again raised the need to preserve “the gains of the Good Friday agreement” during Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis’ trip to Washington earlier this month.

Mr Johnson’s trade team believes the federal structure of the US government opens up opportunities to forge new arrangements on services, with ministers said to be on a “charm offensive” with state capitals.

While only the Biden administration can change tariffs on goods, there is hope that “mini” agreements can be struck with states on non-tariff barriers like services regulation.

Trade minister Penny Mordaunt – who visited California, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and South Carolina at the end of last year – has reportedly held further talks with officials from several other states.

“We want to make it easier and cheaper for UK and US businesses to work together,” a trade department spokesperson told The Independent.

The DIT spokesperson added: “Whether it is a recognition of professional qualifications, increased uptake of state-level procurement contacts, or closer ties between key sectors – we are exploring ways to help businesses take full advantage of these opportunities, benefitting communities across the UK and the US.”

The government insists it has not given up hope of a deal with Washington. Sources in the department made clear that any agreements with individual states are not a replacement for a free trade agreement with the Biden administration.

However, Labour mocked the current ambitions of the government – pointing out that the last Conservative manifesto promised a comprehensive US trade deal by the end of 2022.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow international trade secretary, said: “Now it seems the government is shifting the goal posts and pretending that they have not broken a manifesto commitment.”

The senior Labour MP added: “For years Britain has enjoyed a special relationship with the US but under the Tories this is being damaged.

“Ministers need to urgently come clean and tell the public why we appear to be at the back of the queue for a free trade deal.”

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