‘Reluctance bordering on hostility’: ex-diplomat says civil service ‘anti-Brexit protectionism’ hampered trade deal

Former Australian high commissioner to the UK says Defra officials were most hostile to negotiations
George Brandis leaving Downing Street. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

05 May 2022

Officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other departments resisted trade negotiations with Australia due to their anti-Brexit stance, an Australian ex-diplomat has claimed.

George Brandis, who left his role as high commissioner to the UK last month, said the default position from British civil servants during the UK-Australian trade negotiations was “horror at Brexit”.

He described this as “reluctance bordering on hostility in some departments – most notably Defra”, the department responsible for British farming.

“It was kind of like a cringe or a crouch, recoiling and willing it not to happen. Or being in denial that it was happening,” he told The Spectator.

A Government spokesperson responded: “Civil servants deliver government policy with honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality, and we are continuing to maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU through a new Brexit Freedoms Bill."

Trade negotiations between the UK and Australia began in June 2020 amid a reported cabinet dispute over the impact tariff-free imports of Australian lamb and beef would have on British farming.

Environment secretary George Eustice and then-trade secretary Liz Truss were said to be locked in an “absolutely ferocious” row a month before negotiations began over the farming concerns, with then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng reportedly backing Eustice and then-Brexit minister David Frost on Truss’s side.

The two countries agreed a deal in December, including tariff-free beef and lamb, which the government said would boost trade between the two countries by £10.4bn.

Brandis, who was high commissioner to the UK throughout the talks, said he had to form an alliance with Truss, who he said had “the political will… to drive and cut through the bureaucratic and institutional inertia and reluctance”.

The ex-high commissioner said they were, alongside the Australian trade minister, “both fighting” with a “large element of the Whitehall establishment”.

Branding the trade deal a “battle”, he said: “One of the very surprising things to me coming from Australia – where the protectionist argument was thwarted decades ago – was [to see] that the default position of Whitehall is protectionism.

“The Whitehall establishment wanted to maintain this whole culture of protectionism and that set Whitehall completely at variance from the government’s priority.”

Brandis also suggested Britain could learn from Australia to break out of a “soporific” EU-influenced mindset to agriculture policy and “go out and find new markets”.

A government spokesman said: “Our landmark free trade agreement with Australia will unlock £10.4 billion of additional bilateral trade, with tariffs being removed on all UK exports, and which will pave the way for accession to the £8.6 trillion CPTPP free trade area in the Indo-Pacific.”

 

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