Alastair Stewart: Brexit was about striking out for new trade arrangements

That's why Boris Johnson's meeting with Joe Biden mattered

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The PM didn’t get a comprehensive trade deal from President Joe Biden this week.

He got lots of cash for climate change, the earlier than expected restoration trans-Atlantic flights, a lecture on the Northern Ireland protocol and, perhaps, a bit more movement towards the UK becoming a part of the US/Canada/Mexico trade deal..

So not a ‘Just you and me, Boris’ deal but some movement with America’s other friends too.

The pound didn’t plummet, nor did the stock exchange.

The EU didn’t thumb their noses or laugh behind their hands at our public humiliation.

Is that because, ultimately, “it’ll be alright on the night” - whenever that night comes?

Or perhaps, dare to whisper it, it doesn’t matter that much.

We don’t currently have a full-blown trade deal with the USA and yet our trade - both ways - blossoms.

It could be more but we’re talking fractions.

Recovery, growth and new business will probably provide as much, anyway.

As it happens, UK - US trade is about £200 billion a year already and that’s without a trade deal.

That’s our largest single trade partner and no deal….

Truth to tell, for most people - business managers and consumers - the price of liquid gas, the flow of HGV lorries up and down the Motorways, and whether or not a huge container ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal and blocks it for days, are much more pressing matters that the tariffs, quotas and duties that are the meat and drink of trade deals.

What’s more, leaving the EU didn’t strip super-market shelves bare, deny us the motor car for our choice, or the cheese or the wine - come to that.

Prices may rise a little but frankly a shortage of labour in a rebounding post-Covid economy is a much bigger factor.

Several deals have been rolled over in the post-Brexit era; others are a work in progress; and some, like fishing, remain fraught but small.

What’s more, UK trade with the EU, as a proportion of the whole ‘gateau’, has been shrinking for years.

We’ve been selling more to non-EU nations than to the EU for many years.

And our trade with the EU has long been in deficit.

Our trade with the rest of the world, on the other hand, has been doing rather well.

So what should the Government focus on?

I’m sure the Sherpas will continue to beaver away at a deal with the States and its North Atlantic variant.

Works in progress…

I can see the merits in tidying up the loose ends in our trade arrangements with the EU.

Finessing the deals on the table with Australia and New Zealand matters.

Everyone wants good food, produced sensitively, and at the lowest possible price.

But we may also want to reflect on how important British agriculture and fishing are to our way of life as well as our budget.

But the bottom line to me is much more than just the terms of trade on what we already buy and sell - it is about new markets for new good and services.

Brexit was not only about reclaiming our laws, our border and all the constitutional stuff; it was also about leaving a trade bloc that, in my view had got delusions of constitutional grandeur, and striking out for new trade arrangements with old friends and new.

That’s why the PM’s trade talks in Washington mattered.

A formal trade deal, signed in the White House, ‘looks’ good for us and our friends.

But more trade with the billionaire boffins of Silicon Valley, the farmers of Mexico and the foresters and fishermen of Canada matter more.

And new trade with regions and even countries, a little low on our present radar, with goods and services that are coming out of our factories, based on ideas from our University labs and start-ups…. now you’re talking.

And talk about trade, we must