Yes, the Chequers plan has killed off a trade deal, just as I predicted

The master of ‘The Art of the Deal’ has repeatedly said that in trade deals there is a winner and a loser and he has no intention of being the loser to the UK

Vince Cable
Saturday 14 July 2018 10:37 BST
Trump accuses The Sun of 'fake news' and insists whatever Theresa May does with Brexit 'is ok with me'

Now that Trump has moved on to play golf and to see his soulmate Vladimir Putin, it is time to assess the scale of the damage he has done in the UK.

It is not too farfetched to see him increasingly as an enemy of the UK: hostile to our interests and what we stand for.

He has deliberately humiliated the Prime Minister by criticising her conduct of the divisive and difficult Brexit negotiations, and endorsing the political ambitions of Boris Johnson a few days after he resigned from the government.

Johnson may share his narcissistic, utterly self-absorbed personality, but Trump is embracing him because, alongside Nigel Farage (and, earlier, Michael Gove) Johnson represents a hard Brexit and its capacity to create division in Europe.

Trump’s most politically damaging comment for the government was his rubbishing of Theresa May’s claim that her white paper was part of a post-Brexit plan to open up lucrative bilateral trade deals led by the US. He has pointed out that the retention of EU regulations, as for foodstuffs, make such an agreement of little interest.

He is, at least on this point, absolutely right. I argued in parliament last week that one of the few merits of the May plan for Brexit is precisely that it may spare us from a damaging trade agreement with the US.

Of course, it is mutually beneficial to trade with the US as the country accounts for around 18 per cent of UK exports of goods and services. The UK has a sizeable bilateral surplus, which in Trump economics is seen as a threat to the US.

But there are few trade barriers after decades of multilateral liberalisation, and those that remain are mostly non-tariff barriers, and – like state-level public procurement rules in the US – are difficult to negotiate away.

During the coalition I helped to negotiate a bilateral agreement between the US and the EU, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The US, even then, made demands which were uncomfortable for the EU and for us. The US pushed against the EU’s strong barriers on food standards (such as beef hormones, GM food and chlorinated chicken) but they will be upheld, Theresa May has said.

There was also, and will be, a demand from the US to overrule British courts in investment disputes – at a time when Brexiters want to “take back control”. We also saw their clear ambition to open up public sector contracts to US companies which potentially means the NHS.

During this negotiation, the EU trade officials could push back; on our own Britain is the much weaker partner. The master of The Art of the Deal has repeatedly said that in trade deals there is a winner and a loser, and he has no intention of being the loser to the UK. The relief is that he appears to consider a deal with the UK scarcely worth getting out of bed for.

Whatever happens in bilateral trade negotiations, Trump is trashing the delicate web of international rules on which an open trading system depends. He is trying to destroy the authority of the World Trade Organisation, refusing to accept its legitimacy and refusing to staff its legal panels.

This is one part of an assault on the system on multilateral cooperation and institutions which, under US leadership, has sustained the prosperity of the Western world and the emergence of other countries from extreme poverty. The destruction of a rules-based system makes it impossible to tackle looming crises, including climate change. And it undermines collective security as with the Iran agreement to try to limit nuclear proliferation.

And while Trump is right to complain that some members of Nato are free-riding and relying on others to pay the defence bills, his ultimate objective appears to be to undermine Nato by dividing its members and developing a special relationship with Putin’s Russia.

I suspect that world trade and international cooperation were not the dominant concerns of those who came out to demonstrate on Friday. Trump’s prejudices (or perhaps the exploitation of other peoples’ prejudices) about black people, Muslims and women have alienated many who had long been well disposed to the US. Trump’s obvious preference for (male) autocrats over democrats (especially female leaders) underlines the difference.

None of us know if the rift which has opened up is permanent (a lot will depend on whether Trump is re-elected). What we, in the UK, have to decide is how to treat Trump.

Theresa May has clearly made a mistake in thinking that flattery, obsequiousness, laying on the “visuals” and wheeling out the Queen will carry weight. The toe-curlingly embarrassing attempts to curry favour with someone who regards her, and Britain, with contempt have achieved nothing.

It would make more sense to deal with Trump with cold politeness in much the way we deal with Putin: not a friend of this country, but someone who we cannot ignore.

Vince Cable is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham

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