The prime minister dismissed warnings that allowing the cost-free import of Australian beef and lamb could harm British farmers by insisting that critics are “grossly underestimating” UK agriculture’s ability to harness global trade.
But it comes after the National Farmers Union (NFU) warned that any trade deal must be balanced or there is a risk that British farming will suffer “irreversible damage” as it will struggle to compete with Australian imports.
The issue is at the heart of a reported Cabinet rift over the future of the economy after Brexit.
The Financial Times reported that environment secretary George Eustice and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who are sympathetic to the NFU position, are at loggerheads with trade secretary Liz Truss and Brexit minister Lord Frost, who favour tariff-free trade.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford seized on the issue at prime minister’s questions, accusing Johnson of “planning to throw our farmers and crofters under the Brexit bus”.
“This deal would be the final nail in the coffin for many Scottish crofters and farmers, it will end a way of life that has endured for generations prime minister.
“I know that many of the prime minister’s Tory colleagues privately agree with me and want him to pull back from this deal.
“So will the prime minister finally listen, think again and ditch a deal that will send our farmers down under?”
Responding, Johnson said: “First of all he’s totally wrong about what he says about the fisheries because in fact there are massive opportunities for fisheries for the whole of the UK as we take back control of our territorial waters.”
He added: “He is grossly underestimating the ability of the people of this country, the agricultural communities of this country, the farming industry to make the most of free trade. This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade on exporting around the world.
“Our food exports are second to none, he should be proud of that, we should be celebrating that and all he does is call for us to pull up the drawbridge and go back into the EU to be run by Brussels, that’s his manifesto and I think the people of this country have decisively rejected it.”
Separate reports have suggested that Cabinet ministers are now rowing over the length of time any deal takes to phase-in tariff-free trade with Australia, and also whether quotas could be applied to beef and lamb imports.
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 on Tuesday: “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.”
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.
But Eustice has said there was a “balance to be struck” between opening up trade and protecting domestic industries, a view shared by the NFU.
Following a Tuesday 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.”
Senior Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael said the Tories might suffer at the hands of rural voters after Johnson “joined the anti-farming brigade”.