Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Boris Johnson has been urged by a senior Tory to set “clear red lines” in US trade negotiations to stop the import of “cheap” and “grizzled” American food to the UK.
Former minister George Freeman, backed by a “growing group” of dozens of Tory MPs, told the prime minister not to “sell out” the party’s manifesto pledge to maintain British food standards in post-Brexit trade deals.
Around 20 Tory MPs have already rebelled to try and block the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef amid growing fears about trade negotiations with Donald Trump’s US, which has made food exports a priority in talks.
Writing exclusively for HuffPost UK, Freeman suggested MPs could back fresh amendments to the trade and agriculture bills in an effort to ensure ministers do not “pander to the grizzled US cheap food lobby with its hormone beef, chlorinated chicken and ‘finger-lick’n’ cheap food culture”.
The government has so far insisted it will not water down food standards, but voted down a Tory rebel attempt to stop the UK import poorer quality food after signing a free trade deal with the US.
Trade secretary Liz Truss last week insisted that the UK “will never lower our standards in order to sign a trade deal”.
“Contrary to claims in the press, these standards – the ban on chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef – are already in UK law through the withdrawal act,” she said.
But Freeman and colleagues fear the government could use controversial so-called Henry VIII powers to change the standards without a proper vote in the Commons, and seek to drive through the changes under the radar as part of a wider US trade deal package.
More than one million people have also now signed a National Farmers Union petition to legally ban the import of lower quality food.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, the Mid Norfolk MP said: “We won a landslide based on Boris and Michael Gove’s clear commitment that Brexit would not mean lowering our welfare standards. They were right.
“This is the first test of that. We mustn’t allow the opposition to portray us as selling out our manifesto pledge.
“Our growing group of MPs from all wings of the party and corners of the country is urging the PM to set clear red lines in the US trade deal”.
Five Tories are already backing amendments to the trade bill to give MPs a greater role in scrutinising post-Brexit free trade deals.
The Lords is also set to vote on a cross-party amendment to the agriculture bill to maintain UK food standards in trade deals, which is likely to spark a fresh MPs’ rebellion if it passes in the upper house.
Freeman warned that without either clear red lines or “basic parliamentary scrutiny” of trade deals, “we are in danger of giving the green light to exactly what the US department for trade – and ultra-free market Brexiteers – have long wanted: an abandonment of EU “red tape” and an open door for cheap imports”.
He said that approach would “mean the equivalent to UK farming of the closure of our shipbuilding and steel industry in the 1980s”.
In the wake of coronavirus, Freeman also warned that the UK has a “solemn duty” to secure its supply chains from public health risks from other countries like China, with its wet markets.
“Does “global Britain” mean maintaining our high standards and leadership on the environment, animal welfare, food standards, resilience and sustainability?” he wrote.
“Or does global Britain mean “cheap Britain” - cutting corners, lowering standards and abandoning our own farming industry by importing the cheapest food from around the world? From Wisconsin to Wuhan.”