Cabinet ministers meet to thrash out Australian trade deal divisions

Downing Street said Boris Johnson wants to “maximise” the benefits of trade deals as he intervened in the Cabinet row over a planned agreement with Australia.

The Prime Minister chaired a meeting of senior colleagues as negotiations with Australia about the terms of a deal continued.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Environment Secretary George Eustice are thought to be at odds over the proposals and the impact they might have on British farmers.

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International Trade Secretary Liz Truss (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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.

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.”

But the spokesman refused to be drawn on what the measures to protect farmers would be, insisting he would not comment on the ongoing negotiations.

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The proposed deal has been criticised on environmental grounds because of the prospect of Australian beef being shipped around the world.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “Our cattle come from a mainly grass-fed nation and we have one of the best carbon footprints for beef production in the world.

“In contrast, imported Australian beef will likely be produced on feedlots, fed on grain and full of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have significant commitments that we are delivering on climate change.

“Obviously we would want to take all those things into consideration when looking at any sort of deal.”

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “We’re really concerned about reports that the Government is getting close to a trade deal with Australia which could see zero tariffs on goods produced to lower animal welfare standards, failing to protect our own welfare standards and the livelihoods of British farmers.”

He said the Government should keep its commitment to set up a trade and agriculture commission to scrutinise deals.

Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told Times Radio: “I think we should do a trade deal with Australia and I think there’s huge potential in it, but what we should be doing is thinking about what it is that we need from trade, what we want to get from it, what our offensive-asks are, and how we need to defend ourselves.

“Frankly, we in this country have high food production standards.

“We have good animal welfare standards, and we don’t want that undermined by cheap imports from countries that don’t have the same standards as we do.”