UK International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has held talks with her Australian counterpart as the two countries edged closer to a free trade deal.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) confirmed Ms Truss spoke by telephone to Dan Tehan rising amid concern among British farmers that full liberalisation would see them severely undercut by their Australian rivals.
The call took place after ministers met on Thursday to thrash out their differences with Environment Secretary George Eustice and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove leading the resistance to a zero tariffs, zero quotas agreement which the Australians are demanding.
The two ministers were reported to have voiced concerns that smaller beef and lamb producers – particularly in Scotland and Wales – could be unable to compete with the typically much larger Australian farms.
Boris Johnson – who has made securing a series of ambitious post-Brexit free trade deals a key priority of his premiership – is thought however to have come down in favour of an agreement.
Speaking during a visit to Portsmouth on Friday, the Prime Minister insisted the agriculture sector should see such deals “not as threats but as opportunities”.
“We are certainly looking at doing free trade deals with countries around the world,” he told reporters.
“I do think that free trade deals present a fantastic opportunity for our farmers, for businesses of all kinds and for manufacturers.
“I think it is vital that as a great historic free-trading nation that grew to prosperity thanks to free trade, that we see these new openings not as threats but as opportunities.”
Downing Street has indicated that Mr Johnson hopes an agreement can be concluded by the time of the G7 summit in Cornwall next month.
The DIT would not be drawn on reports that Ms Truss had put the UK’s proposals for a full tariff-free, quota-free agreement to Mr Tehan in her call.
Officials have however insisted that any agreement would include safeguards for farmers, with the terms expected to be phased in over 15 years to allow them time to adapt.
A DIT spokeswoman said: “Any deal we sign with Australia will include protections for the agriculture industry and will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.
“Typically, any tariff liberalisation is staged over time. Australian meat accounts for a very low proportion of total UK imports, and is produced to high standards.
“We will continue to work with the industry, keeping them involved throughout the process and helping it capture the full benefits of trade.”