Downing Street has said “negotiations are still ongoing” amid reports the Cabinet is in agreement over a planned trade deal with Australia.
The Sun reported Prime Minister Boris Johnson will offer Australia a 15-year transition to a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade pact, with the BBC reporting it was understood a Cabinet row over the matter had been resolved on Thursday night at Number 10.
Mr Johnson chaired the meeting of senior colleagues, with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Environment Secretary George Eustice thought to be at odds over the proposals and the impact they might have on British farmers.
Despite reporting that Cabinet was now in agreement over the matter, a Downing Street spokesman said on Friday morning “negotiations are still ongoing”.
Ms Truss, who has said she wants an agreement in principle by early June, is thought to favour a zero-tariff, zero-quota approach in order to boost the flow of trade.
But such a move could leave British farmers vulnerable to competition from beef and lamb producers in Australia, and Mr Eustice has suggested that quotas could be used to protect them.
Asked whether he could give reassurances to British farmers that free trade was not being put ahead of the agricultural sector in the prospective deal with Australia, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course I can.
“The Government has always said that any free trade agreement reached with Australia or indeed other countries around the world… will of course take into account the very high welfare standards we apply here in the UK and will of course make sure British farming and British farmers are not undercut, are not put at a disadvantage, bearing in mind the quality and excellence of the products which are made here in the UK.
“That is at the heart of our trade policy and that will be adhered to in respect to both Australia and indeed other trade deals that will be looming over the horizon in the months and years ahead.”
However the incoming leader of the DUP said there was a “high risk” to Northern Irish farmers, as well as the rest of the UK, if a zero-tariff deal was agreed.
Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister who will take over as leader from Arlene Foster, said: “Australia has a number of distinct advantages over Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, in terms of the land available for farming, climate and lower standards, that allows its farmers to be able to produce at a considerably lower cost, particularly in the beef and sheep sectors.
“Consequently there is a lot of potential for Australian beef and sheep exports to the UK to expand substantially over time if tariffs are eliminated.
“Australian beef and sheep products have the potential to undercut UK producers and to reduce Northern Ireland’s market share in GB, which is our most important market for these products.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There are a regular series of meetings on not just this trade deal but the deals we have been working on throughout.
“The Prime Minister met with the ministers involved, like Liz Truss obviously, as part of the regular process.”
Mr Johnson “wants to maximise the massive opportunities presented by post-Brexit trade deals”, the spokesman said.
Downing Street insisted farmers would be protected in any deal with Australia.
“Any agreement would include protections for our agriculture industry and won’t undercut UK farmers,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“We want a deal that is good for the British public and any agreement would have protection for the agriculture industry.”