Boris Johnson has admitted he is not about to strike a post-Brexit US/UK trade deal despite the Leave campaign having trumpeted such an agreement to win over voters in 2016.
After more than 90 minutes of talks with Joe Biden in the White House, the Prime Minister conceded on Wednesday that he is currently looking to make only “incremental steps” to trading with America.
The US president’s stance is a major blow to Mr Johnson on Brexit, especially given that key Brexiteers had claimed that gaining a US trade deal would be easy.
Mr Biden has also warned the Prime Minister not to jeopardise the Northern Ireland peace settlement in a row between the Government and Brussels over a protocol on trade across the Irish Sea.
Speaking to reporters outside the US Capitol building in Washington, the PM conceded: “The Biden administration is not doing free trade deals around the world right now but I’ve got absolutely every confidence that a great deal is there to be done.
“And there are plenty of people in that building behind me who certainly want a deal.”
Forty-seven per cent of voters say that with hindsight it was wrong for the UK to quit the EU, and 40 per cent believe it is right, according to a YouGov poll last week carried out before the setback over a US trade deal.
Seeking to highlight some progress in trade relations, Mr Johnson welcomed news that a ban on British lamb imports in the US would be lifted.
“I can tell you today that what we’re going to get from the United States now is a lifting of the decades-old ban, totally unjustified, discriminating on British farmers and British lamb,” he said.
“It’s about time too. And what we’re wanting to do is make solid, incremental steps in trade.”
Less than 24 hours after the two leaders met at the White House, a Cabinet minister on Wednesday risked fuelling the transatlantic dispute by saying the US President was “wrong” over a key part of the Brexit settlement.
Environment Secretary George Eustice suggested that Mr Biden does not “fully appreciate” the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol which is a “very complicated piece of agreement” and that he had probably “just read headlines” pumped out from Brussels and Dublin.
A US source told the Evening Standard: “In the wake of a successful bilateral visit, where we are aligned on climate and so many other issues, I’m a bit flummoxed to hear a government minister say the President of the United States is ‘wrong’. Is that the position of Her Majesty’s Government?”
Whitehall sources swiftly sought to correct the view that the Government regarded Mr Biden as being “wrong” over Northern Ireland.
One said: “We absolutely agree that nothing must undermine the Belfast Agreement. We are working to find a sustainable solution, which may not be the solution advocated by the EU.”
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said: “After all his boasts and promises, Boris Johnson has ended up back to square one, at the back of the queue for a US trade deal, and all as a result of the disregard he has shown for the Northern Ireland Protocol which he himself negotiated.”
Amid the transatlantic stand-off, Mr Eustice did not rule out the Government failing to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the US before the next general election, expected in 2024. He admitted it was not a “priority” for the White House.
Mr Biden poured cold water on prospects of a quick post-Brexit trade deal on Tuesday. He did not counter the assertion from former President Barack Obama that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a free trade agreement.
Mr Biden also issued a fresh warning for the UK not to damage the peace process in Northern Ireland as it clashes with Brussels over trade links across the Irish Sea. However, Mr Eustice claimed that the President had not fully understood the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He told Sky News: “I think he is probably at the moment just reading the headlines, reading what the EU is saying, reading what Ireland might be saying, which is they would like the Northern Ireland Protocol to work in the way that the EU envisage.
“We think he is wrong because the truth is unless we have a sustainable solution that enables trade to continue between GB and Northern Ireland, then we are going to have issues, that itself would become a challenge to the Belfast Agreement.”
Mr Eustice said some 60 trade deals had been made since Brexit, including an in-principle agreement with Australia.
Sitting next to Mr Johnson in the Oval Office, Mr Biden made clear that a Brexit trade deal with the US was not on the cards. He told reporters: “We’re going to talk a little bit about trade today and we’re going to have to work that through.”
Mr Johnson updated the President on the “developments” on the protocol since their meeting in Cornwall in June. Vocally proud of his Irish heritage, Mr Biden said he feels “very strongly” about the issues surrounding the peace process as problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol persisted.