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How Boris Johnson could use the coronavirus crisis to strike a UK-US trade deal

While media coverage is focused on the pandemic, the political difficulties of a trade agreement are less intense. 

By Stephen Bush

Never let a good crisis go to waste? The UK government is preparing to offer to slash tariffs on US food in a bid to strike a quick trade deal, Peter Foster and Seb Payne reveal in the FT.

The package is being put forward by the Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, but is facing internal opposition from the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, and Michael Gove, the de facto Brexit secretary, who both fear that lowering tariffs means that British farms, with their higher welfare standards, will be unable to compete with US factory farms. 

Those who want a comprehensive US-UK trade deal have two limited windows of opportunity. The first is that the Trump presidency may well prove to be a one-term proposition, and that it will be harder to strike a trade deal with a Democratic White House and possible Senate majority than now. In addition to all of the tricky fights about agriculture, services and market access  that are baked into any US-UK trade deal, a Democratic win in November adds the perception among the Democratic Party establishment that Boris Johnson is one and the same as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro et al.

The second window of opportunity is that while British media coverage is focused on the fight against the novel coronavirus, the political difficulties of signing a US-UK trade deal are less acute.

If the Conservatives can’t get a deal now, those pressures will only grow. While this pandemic emerged from Chinese wet markets, the other big pandemic risk factor is US factory farming. Swine flu and bird flu emerged from factory farms – in the end, neither of those novel influenzas proved as deadly as feared, but make no mistake: Whitehall’s ancient fear of a new flu strain is not an unreasonable one, and the next new major pandemic may well emerge from a factory farm.

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The truth, of course, is that just as a Sino-British trade deal is not going to shutter Chinese wet markets, a US-UK trade deal is not, whatever happens, going to shift US agricultural policy. Only domestic politics can change either of those things. 

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But just as the government’s pre-crisis position of relative openness to China on everything from Huawei to the London property market is going to be more fraught for the government in the future, the political challenge of striking a trade deal with the US is only going to rise – unless the government can sneak one past the radar during the time of lockdown.