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There were some truly concerning new figures on Covid today, confirming a sharp spike in cases of the Indian variant (a 160% increase over the past week). It appears that its doubling time is just five days, even scarier than the 14-day doubling time of the Kent variant that caused such devastation in January.
But in No.10 and in key departments across Whitehall, it wasn’t the pandemic that was the hot political issue of the day, it was Brexit. Or rather, the post-Brexit trade deal with Australia that has caused a pretty tense turf war between international trade secretary Liz Truss and environment secretary (and erstwhile Cornish farmer) George Eustice.
Earlier this week, the FT lifted the lid on the row over Truss’s tariff-free plan, revealing she was backed by Brexit minister Lord Frost, while Eustice had the support of Michael Gove. A clear-the-air meeting was held this morning to thrash things out, and early leaks suggest that Truss emerged the happier.
The ultimate arbiter is of course Boris Johnson, who chaired the meeting. And he pretty much gave the game away in PMQs on Wednesday with his bold talk of UK farmers’ ability to “make the most of free trade”.
That didn’t sound like the protective quotas that Eustice had been hoping for. The Sun’s Harry Cole has the scoop revealing the plan is for a 15-year transition to tariff-free status, which feels like a big win for Truss but may be enough to avoid Eustice having to resign.
What’s striking about this particular row is that it’s not the classic Remainers v Brexiteers split that it might have been under Theresa May. It’s more like ‘Truss-tafarians’ versus ‘Cornish Georgians’. In fact, allies of Eustice acidly point out that Truss actually campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum (famously tweeting “I am backing remain as I believe it is in Britain’s economic interest”). She has since claimed she got it wrong.
By contrast, Eustice himself has a long track record of wanting out of the EU, stretching back to his UKIP days. He even quit the May government in protest at her foot-dragging on the issue. Yet Eustice’s sin, like Michael Gove’s, is to be seen as too pragmatic a Brexiteer. Since the Leave vote he’s made no secret of wanting a workable exit that entails compromises. It’s not just about farmers’ interests, it’s about adaptable Toryism.
Johnson, who famously wrote two columns for and against Brexit, perhaps now firmly sides with Truss because, like her, he has the zealotry of a convert. And that’s why a normally dull Whitehall turf war over agriculture really takes on significance: because it is a test case for Brexit itself, and how far the PM wants to go to get trade deals with other countries to send a message about buccaneering Britain.
Even if this deal goes ahead, it will amount to a tiny portion over the UK’s overall trade. Instead, it is the signal a successful deal sends to the US and south America, where the big agriculture opportunities (and dangers) lie, that seems to matter most to the PM.
The real issue is not hormones in beef or chlorine on chicken, but lead in Johnson’s pencil on Brexit. When Truss said negotiators were “in a sprint” to get an outline deal by June, it felt very much like a Brexit virility test, with the results read out at the G7 summit in Cornwall (ironically, Eustice’s backyard, and it now seems like a sprint followed by a marathon of transition).
Some farmers, like some fishermen, will feel this wasn’t the Brexit they voted for. But it would be in keeping with Johnson’s act now-think later approach to try to secure a down-and-dirty trade deal that he hopes he can perhaps ameliorate later by chucking money at farmers (as he has with fishermen). Will he also think his Northern Ireland protocol problems can be solved by a similar 15-year transition?
Meanwhile, more Labour MPs think it’s time their party grasped the nettle of this whole issue. In our latest Commons People podcast, Keir Starmer’s new PPS Sharon Hodgson told us: “We’ve got to stop being scared of poking the tiger, we’ve got to stop being scared that this will upset people to actually point out that his Brexit had holes in it, we’re not getting the best Brexit we could have got.”
Hodgson, who has for years represented Sunderland, the crucible of the Vote Leave referendum victory, stressed there would be “freedoms and flexibility” from Brexit but said more Leave voters were now admitting there would be “short term pain”. Her case was similar to that of Rachel Reeves, who recently said Labour should point out the holes in Johnson’s exit deal.
As ever, the key to this is how to frame the debate. Hodgson is north east born and bred and carries an authenticity that stems from being rooted in her local area. And when she says “we’re not trying to unpick the whole thing by saying actually this could be improved”, adding it’s time for a “better” Brexit, she is perhaps laying the groundwork for Starmer to be similarly candid.
Honesty about the deal’s downsides and a willingness to make things better may resonate more than Labour silence, and certainly more than “we told you so” muttering.
Starmer told the PLP this week: ”We need to build a post-austerity, post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain.” We may not be fully free of austerity, let alone the pandemic, for a couple more years. And it’s likely we won’t be “post-Brexit” by the time of a general election in autumn 2023. Today suggests that both parties, in different ways, are preparing for that brute fact.