Amidst all the challenging stories dogging the Government at the moment, yesterday’s newspapers offered a rare bright spot: the conclusion of an ‘historic’ trade agreement between the United Kingdom and Japan.
With talks with the European Union having almost completely broken down, and negotiations with the United States also having stalled, it offers a much-needed sense of momentum to the idea of a free-trading ‘global Britain’ so cherished by Brexiteers.
It also undercuts the impression that Boris Johnson’s brinkmanship over the UK Internal Market Bill has left it internationally isolated, although the timing reportedly owes more to the imminent departure of Abe Shinzō, the Japanese premier.
Yet the detail also highlights the challenges of the new approach. The headline figure of a £15.2 billion boost to Anglo-Japanese trade sounds impressive, but is a relative drop in the ocean in GDP terms. Likewise on agriculture, a sensitive topic which is one of the key stumbling blocks to a deal with the US, Britain has only managed to secure access to any unused capacity in a tariff deal negotiated by the EU.
On the other hand, it does illustrate that it is possible for the Government to effectively ‘roll over’ trading relationships built whilst the UK was inside the EU – and indeed, deepen them in areas of particular interest to Britain, such as digital and financial services. Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, has also indicated that she hopes the deal will be a stepping stone towards British membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which the Financial Times describes as “a sprawling multinational trade pact” – and thus further out of the EU’s orbit.
What seems unlikely is that deals like this will have much cut-through with the electorate, who have never been greatly interested in the minutiae of trade or regulatory policy. As the Vote Leave team recognised during the referendum, ‘global Britain’ is not a narrative which greatly excites the voters, especially not those voters who have been won over to the Conservatives since 2016.
If the Government wants to convert trade policy into an electoral dividend, then, it will need to package them up as part of a broader, more appealing, and more digestible narrative with more concrete benefits, as advocates of CANZUK are doing.
The deal with Tokyo is undoubtedly good news. But the detail of the agreement, and the way it has been completely swallowed by the news cycle, spotlights both the challenges involved in operating an independent trade policy and the limited political rewards of doing so.
Image credit: LSE Digital Library.