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Why a bulb of garlic spells trouble for the United Kingdom’s trade policy

The Conservatives are clear that they want the freedom to strike trade deals, but less clear on what they want to do with it.

There’s an interesting meme going around pro-Brexit commentators in the wake of Labour’s commitment to remaining in some form of customs union after Brexit: that staying in a customs union with the European Union is regressive, because thanks to the rules of the EU, it costs more for British consumers from the developing world – garlic is the go to example – than it is to buy from the nations of the EU – garlic from France, say – which is bad for the global south.

I say the meme is interesting because it speaks to a striking emerging theme in the Conservatives’ trade policy – such as it is  - which is that no-one seems to have put much thought into what that party’s trade policy should be for.

There are two big problems with the meme, the first of which is that it isn’t true: under the EU’s “Everything But Arms” initiative, all exports from the least developing countries are both tariff-free and quota-free, other than, you guessed it, weapons and armaments. In any case, the biggest exporter of garlic to the United Kingdom is China, who are not covered by EBA and aren't - spoiler alert - in the EU.

The other problem is that it is not necessarily the case that it is in the interests of the United Kingdom to buy more or as much of its garlic from the global south as it does from western Europe. If British trade policy is solely an extension of its international development policy, maybe. If British trade policy has any interest in increasing food security here at home or reducing the United Kingdom’s environmental footprint, it’s palpably not the case.

For many on Whitehall, it comes back to Theresa May's original sin in creating the Department of International Trade as a free-standing department, rather than an outgrowth of either the Foreign Office or the Business department, which means that its major brief will always be to make deals rather than as part of a wider foreign or economic policy brief.

All of which speaks to the wider problem with British trade policy after Brexit, which is that it largely exists at an elite level as a stick to beat Remainers with, or a prize to be revealed when people look back and ask what the United Kingdom got out of leaving. Viewed through that lens, what matters is doing trade deals as quickly as possible, and the contents and how they fit into the United Kingdom’s wider economic, environmental and foreign policy objectives can wait for another time.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Labour will win the London elections – they’ve just lost the spin war

The question is, does that matter? 

Cancel the champagne in Jeremy Corbyn’s office? A new YouGov poll for Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute shows Labour slipping back from the record-breaking heights of 53 per cent in the local elections in London… to the still record-breaking heights of 51 per cent.

There are two things to note first off: the first, of course, is that Labour would still be posting the best result of any party in the capital since 1971, and its best since these boroughs were founded. The second is that as the change is within the margin of error, it could all be noise.

My sense, from talking to the local parties throughout the capital is that there has been a slight fall in Labour support but it is not evenly spread. In Barnet, the party’s ongoing difficulties with antisemitism have turned what looked a certain victory into a knife-edge fight. In Wandsworth, stories in the Standard about the local Momentum group have successfully spooked some residents into fearing that a Labour victory in that borough would imperil the borough’s long history of ultra-low council tax, while the presence of a fairly well-organised campaign from new party Renew is splitting angry pro-Remain vote. But elsewhere, neither Labour nor Tory local activists are reporting any kind of fall.

However, it does show how comprehensively Labour have lost the spin war as far as what a “good” set of local election results would be next week: as I laid out in my analyses of what a good night for the major parties would be, Wandsworth and Westminster councils, both of which would stay blue if this poll is borne out, should not be seen as essential gains for Labour and should properly be seen as disastrous defeats for the Conservatives.

However, CCHQ have done a good job setting out a benchmark for what a good night looks like to the point where holding onto Bexley is probably going to be hailed as a success. Labour haven’t really entered the spin wars. As I noted on our podcast this week, that’s in part because, as one senior member of Team Corbyn noted, there is a belief that whatever you do in the run-up, the BBC will decide that there is merit in both sides’ presentation of how the night has gone, so why bother with the spin war beforehand? We may be about to find out whether that’s true. The bigger question for Labour is if the inability to shape the narrative in the face of a largely hostile press will be a problem come 2022. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.