Environment Secretary George Eustice has said the Government wants to do trade deals with other countries “but obviously on the right terms” amid reports of a rift in the Cabinet over negotiations with Australia.
The Financial Times reported that Mr Eustice and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove were at loggerheads with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Brexit minister Lord Frost over granting tariff-free access to Australian farmers under any proposed deal.
Ms Truss is understood to be under pressure to grant tariff-free access for farmers in Australia and New Zealand in order to secure the new trade deals, but Mr Eustice is concerned that doing so could spark a backlash from the UK farming industry due to the impact of potential zero-tariff imports of lamb and beef.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has also intervened publicly in the debate in a bid to calm the fears of British farmers, insisting there would be “plenty of time” to adjust to a potential zero-tariff scenario with the southern hemisphere countries.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “I think it would be something that, if it did happen, would happen over more than a decade, so there is plenty of time to adjust, plenty of time to drive up productivity.”
Cabinet colleague Ms Truss considers the first major post-Brexit trade deal a “crunch point” with a desire to finalise it before June’s G7 conference in Cornwall.
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mr Eustice said: “I’m not going to get into discussions that are going on in Government about individual trade agreements.
“In any discussion on any part of Government policy, and trade agreements are no exception, there’s a discussion and there’s a consensus.
“At the moment there’s a very clear consensus in Government that we want to do a trade agreement with countries like Australia, but obviously on the right terms.”
Mr Eustice said there was a “balance to be struck” between opening up trade and protecting domestic industries, a view shared by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
British farming will struggle to compete if zero-tariff trade on lamb and beef goes ahead, the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has said.
Following a meeting of the UK Farming Roundtable, which includes 19 farming bodies, NFU president Minette Batters said: “We know that if we’re to open up the opportunities of new markets overseas for UK farmers, we will have to offer greater access to our own markets in return.
“However, this trade-off needs to be balanced, and we need to make sure concessions to our hugely valuable home market are not given away lightly.
“There is a very real risk that, if we get it wrong, UK farming will suffer irreversible damage rather than flourish in the way we all desire, to the detriment of our environment, our food security and our rural communities.”
Mr Eustice told Sky News: “We think there’s great opportunities, we’re very keen for instance to pursue trade agreements with Australia and also with the United States and with other countries as well.
“But always in any trade agreement, yes there’s a balance to be struck between your commercial interests and your desire to open up free markets.”
He added: “I have very good discussions with all of my Cabinet colleagues on all issues where we have got a shared agenda.”
Downing Street said negotiators were discussing the “final elements” of a deal and that they hoped to get an agreement in principle by June.
“The Government is united in wanting to secure an ambitious free trade deal with Australia that benefits businesses across the UK,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“Any agreement will include protections for the agricultural industry and won’t undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.”
Labour said British farmers would expect the Government to protect their livelihoods.
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said: “If Liz Truss cannot negotiate a trade deal with Australia on the terms she herself proposed last year, the fault lies squarely at her door.
“So instead of blaming her Cabinet colleagues or the National Farmers’ Union for these difficulties, she should get on with her job, and deliver the deal that she promised.
“It’s perfectly normal that the Australian government should try to get the best possible deal for its agricultural mega-corporations.
“But British family farmers have a right to expect that Liz Truss will do the same for them, not sell out their livelihoods for the price of a quick trade deal, and a cheap headline at the G7 summit.”
It comes after Ms Truss said she would officially start trade talks with Canada and Mexico, adding to those under way with India, Australia and New Zealand.
She also told the Express that the UK was preparing to start talks to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Ms Truss said: “We will be the first non-founding member to join this high-standards pact, opening a huge gateway for UK businesses to 11 vibrant Pacific markets.”