Liz Truss in the naughty chair

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I am bent double, cringing as I write this. So much going on. The bombast expended on a football super-league by a prime minister who offered to sell Newcastle United off to some Saudi royal as a sweetener in a dodgy deal. The revelations of Johnson offering to fix a billionaire Tory donor’s tax —shocking only because it was the BBC that broke the story. The chronicle of defence minister Johnny Mercer’s near-miss resignation that morphed into a sacking. With all that, you may have missed little Miss Truss’s latest antics.

It all began when Lucy Fisher tweeted her latest article bigging up Liz Truss in the April 20 edition of The Telegraph. The article claimed that sources ‘close’ to Truss complained that negotiations with Australia had been progressing at a glacial pace since the appointment of Dan Tehan as Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment in December, 2020. It contained choice quotes like,

“He is inexperienced compared to Liz. He needs to show that he can play at this level.”

“Australia need to show us the colour of their money. They’re great friends of ours and talk a good game about free trade and wanting a deal, but they need to match those words with action.”

Ouch. This is English exceptionalism out of control, arrogance on steroids. Is there a grain of truth in the Department of International Trade’s (DIT) assessment of Tehan? In a word, no. Even the most cursory of Google searches would reveal that Tehan has been working on international trade for over 20 years, including on the Australian-US trade deal. Has the Department of International Trade not done any research on the people sitting across from them at the negotiating table? It certainly seems not. This is a rookie failure in proper preparation.

Tehan is far more experienced than Truss, who has the sum total of 21 months working on rolling over existing EU trade deals. This is the first time she will have to negotiate a deal from scratch, which is a very different prospect to cutting and pasting pre-existing EU deals into a new agreement. The only difficulty with those deals is if the trading partner refuses to extend the exact same terms to us as to the EU, because we are a market of only 66 million people compared with the EU’s 454 million. Australia was picked for Truss to cut her teeth on the much more difficult task of a brand-new free trade agreement (FTA), because it is a close ally and friendly partner. Or it was…

Trade expert Anna Jerzewska commented,

“I’m starting to think that the reason why Liz Truss and DIT believe that negotiations with Australia are progressing at a ‘glacially slow’ pace is that they never truly understood that actual FTA talks are complex and require time and compromises on both sides.

“Successful completion of the continuity agreements must have convinced them that this is what negotiating trade deals outside of the EU looks like.

“Well, it’s not. Negotiating a trade deal from scratch is bound to take longer than agreeing to use one that you already have.”

Truss resorts to torture

We are, after all, still in only round four of our trade talks with Australia. Every negotiation is unique, so there is no set number of rounds, but ‘four’ is fairly early on in the process. Truss the trade apprentice being proclaimed as superior to a genuine trade expert of 20-years’ experience, might have felt like peak Brexit, but it got worse. Lucy Fisher continued:

“Allies of Truss say she plans to sit Aussie trade minister Tehan in the Locarno Room [in Foreign Office] in an uncomfortable chair, so he has to deal with her directly for nine hours.”

Careful, Liz. You’ll have to hand back that award as ‘Honorary Australian of the Year 2021’. Anybody who knows anything about trade will have been face-palming at that dollop of crassness. Do parties to a trade deal use every trick in the book to try to get what they want? Yes, of course. They seat their opponents facing the sun, or play with the room temperature, or, yes, use uncomfortable chairs. Do they advertise it beforehand by publishing details of what they intend to do in national newspapers with global reach? No! There is such a thing as the element of surprise, but first Mercer (a former army captain, no less), and now Truss have demonstrated that they have not got the slightest understanding of strategy or tactics.

The shadow secretary of state for international trade, Emily Thornberry, who comes across as someone who could achieve before breakfast ten times more than Liz Truss does in an entire day, pointed out the folly of Truss’s tirade. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, she said the comments were a “flagrant display of arrogance and disrespect”. She went on to say:

“If Liz Truss wanted to sabotage her own trade negotiations with Australia, it’s hard to see how she could have done it more effectively.

“These remarks are insulting, ignorant and entirely counter-productive, and let’s be clear, they come from ‘allies’ of a minister who hasn’t negotiated a single trade deal that the UK didn’t already have inside the EU.”

Thank goodness the opposition is calling Truss out. We want transparency in government operations, decision-making and procurement, not ‘sources close to Liz Truss’ revealing office tittle-tattle.

If this leak was sanctioned by Truss, then she must resign, as she has put our relations with Australia at risk.

There may be 9,000 miles of ocean between us and Australia, but they have the internet down there and they speak English to boot. Sure, the £18.1 billion in trade we do with them is a mere 1.57 per cent of our total trade, but we do need to hang onto it, having set fire to trade with our nearest and biggest trade partner, and made ourselves less attractive as a trading hub for access to the EU market. A former Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said:

“Many Australian firms have accessed the EU via Britain. With the uncertainty surrounding what a post-Brexit Britain will look like, I believe Australian firms will look to Ireland to fulfil that role.

“Ireland is superbly positioned to attract that kind of engagement from Australian business. I see this as a great opportunity of how we, Australia and Ireland, can take advantage of what has occurred in Brexit.”

An object lesson for a dishonourable honorary Australian

As the story was breaking in Britain, Tehan was in Brussels holding talks on the EU-Australia trade deal. Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s commissioner for trade, gave an object-lesson on how you build trust in a trade partner, with respect and shared goals that go beyond the mere commercial aspects of trade:

“A pleasure to meet Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan today.
We took stock of our FTA negotiations – which we’re eager to advance – and global cooperation on vaccines.
Australia is a like-minded partner. Working together, we can strengthen rules-based trade & WTO reform.”

Oh, to have a grown-up like Dombrovskis in charge of our trade negotiations. English is supposed to be the language of diplomacy. How embarrassing for us that diplomats from other countries employ it to far better diplomatic effect than our leaders do. Our top diplomat in Australia, the UK’s High Commissioner Vicki Treadall, was forced to try to smooth things over. Essentially her argument boiled down to “it was just bantz” — a tactic to try to get a better trade deal, and she assured Australia that Tehan would get a very warm welcome and be given a comfortable chair.

The Australian government was not convinced. One of Tehan’s staff described Truss’s unprovoked ad hominem attack as “a bit of sledging”, and added, “It’s not a very good tactic though. I would actually think it’s more likely to be counterproductive. No doubt they’ll [Truss and DIT] try to blame it on the media.”

Lucy Fisher was back on the beat for The Telegraph, reporting that an Australian minister had labelled the remarks of the source close to Truss as “full of hubris”, adding Tehan “has the stamina” to see off her tactics. (Fisher has had two stories out of the sheer stupidity of the ‘source close to Liz Truss’, so that’s all right then.) The Sydney Morning Herald summarised, “If this was briefed by a member of Truss’s staff, that is very disrespectful. It’s also a very bad tactic. It won’t work.”

Tehan is likely to take it on the chin and not make a song and dance about it. Truss has already sent a text to apologise. (Let us hope it is a genuine apology and not one of the infamous Brexiter non-apologies.) However, trust will inevitably have suffered a dent and Tehan is even less likely to be bounced into a half-baked trade deal by half-witted tactics… if he ever was.

Never mind Johnson’s blonde ambition – here comes Liz Truss

There had been hopes of concluding a trade deal by the end of last year, it is true. However, the pandemic meant that instead of meeting face-to-face for two-week rounds of negotiation, thrashing out the details over 15-hour days, negotiators have had to meet by Zoom across an 11-hour time-difference. That means squeezing negotiations in at the end of each other’s working day.

The focus on time is in any case counter-productive, as anyone who has read the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation agreement will know, with all its gaps and grace periods. Far better to get a good deal than a quick, botched deal.

The sticking point will be agriculture. Australian farmers (whose practices are as poor as those of American farmers and certainly do not match UK farming standards) are keen for greater access to the UK market. The problem is, polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Brits do not want lower food standards.

Truss will likely ignore the public’s overwhelming will on food standards, though. She signalled as much by appointing Shanker Singham to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. He is an Anglo-American libertarian trade lawyer who wants to set fire to our standards. Our food standards will get sold down-river for a trade deal with Australia, which, by the DIT’s own analysis, will yield us between £225-500 million, in other words, less than 0.02 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP, used to measure national income).

All Truss wants is her moment of applause in the Chamber and emoji-laden posts of congratulation on social media. Those who have ever watched her halting, amoeba-like performances in parliament, where she relies on populist tropes instead of sense, evidence and fact, may find it surprising that she has topped Conservative Home’s ‘favourite cabinet minister’ poll of Tory Party members for some time now.

Truss has ambitions for the top job. Try not to cringe too much!