TO say there is a yawning gap between the Conservative Brexiters’ rambunctious promises of big new free trade deals in the wake of the UK’s European single market exit and their delivery on this front would surely be a massive understatement.

The UK Government has for a while now looked a lot like someone casting around for a dance partner in a situation in which everyone else has their plans set, after choosing to jilt a perennially patient companion for no reason whatsoever.

The ruling Conservatives have appeared somewhat desperate for years now as they have sought a big trade deal, or even the promise of one. The impression you get is that they have, all the while, been looking over their shoulders to see what the European Union makes of it all. It is also difficult to shake the notion that they are falling over themselves – as they pursue their haphazard attempts to secure something or anything – to try to stifle the entirely justified criticism from Remainers and independent experts of the whole Brexit folly.

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Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove, back in 2016, famously told us people in the UK have “had enough of experts” in what seemed at the time to be, and continues to look like, an utterly bizarre statement. However, whether they like experts or not, it remains difficult to escape the feeling that senior members of the Conservative Government must, privately at least, be frustrated by the continuing, absolutely correct, well-informed and prevalent view that the Brexit camp has yet to show any actual significant benefit of its crusade. The Tories continue to wade through treacle with the likes of their US trade talks but seemingly to little or no avail.

The clock is ticking. As Michel Barnier, chief European Union negotiator on the bloc’s future relationship with the UK, noted last week, there is less than five months until the UK leaves the single market and customs union on December 31. And not only does the UK not look to be anywhere near landing any big new trade deals, beyond what it has had as part of the EU, but far more importantly the prospect of a calamitous no-deal departure from the European single market continues to loom very large.

The term “unforced error” is often, in more normal summers, applied to something that happens during a long rally on the grass courts at Wimbledon.

However, it has this week been applied by an influential think-tank to the UK Government’s approach to secure free trade deals with countries outwith the EU.

As it published its report on Monday entitled ‘Trade and regulation after Brexit’, the Institute for Government said: “The Government has made an ‘unforced error’ in launching into complex trade negotiations before it had established a domestic regulatory approach.”

Interestingly, the think-tank also flags the potential impact of the controversial topic of chlorinated chicken, which crops up frequently in the context of the UK’s talks about a trade deal with the US, on the Scottish constitutional question.

The Institute for Government said: “The continuing row over ‘chlorinated chicken’ highlights public concern about lowered standards. Tensions between the governments in London and Edinburgh over changes to food standards are high. At a time of mounting strain on the Union, this is [a] situation the government can ill-afford.”

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In terms of the trade deal that matters most to the UK’s future prosperity or otherwise – a comprehensive agreement with the EU to mitigate the still nevertheless huge damage of leaving the single market with its benefits of frictionless trade and free movement of people – we all know by now that Liam Fox was wide of the mark.

The former Secretary of State for International Trade had claimed back in July 2017 that a free trade agreement with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history” to reach.

This looked like a bold statement at the time.

Of course, it was just one of many bold statements from the Brexit camp, with some of the others banging on about brave, bright, ambitious new trade deals with countries outwith the EU. These bold statements have been fairly ubiquitous in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016 and since, as the Conservatives have gone out of their way to woo potential new trade partners.

This wooing could hardly be taking place at a worse time, with the coronavirus crisis having further exacerbated what has for several years looked like a significant move towards greater protectionism. You only need to cast a quick eye over the US-China situation to get an idea of the scale of the challenges posed by a growing propensity for protectionism and tension.

The Institute for Government, for its part, has this week highlighted various problems it believes have existed with the Conservatives’ approach to trying to secure free trade deals with countries outwith the EU.

What is perhaps most interesting in the think-tank’s assessment is its view that the UK is “particularly vulnerable” to demands from prospective trade partners, in the context of the importance attached to such proposed trade deals by the Government in relation to the Brexit drive. The UK Government has made a great deal of noise about desired trade deals.

The observation about vulnerability seems like an astute one given that any prospective partners must know that the UK Government wants and needs a positive response to its overtures, and quickly, as it aims to convince itself, the experts, and critics of Brexit that it has done the right thing by jilting the largest free trade bloc in the world on an unfriendly global stage. Of course, the Tories have not done the right thing by exiting the EU, but that is a much bigger issue.

The Institute for Government, which works to “make government more effective” and is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, said: “The Government will not be able to conclude a large number of trade agreements at speed and maintain its much-prized regulatory autonomy after Brexit.”

The think-tank’s report notes prospective trading partners are likely to tell the UK to change its standards if it wants a trade deal.

The Institute for Government said: “The importance of trade deals as a ‘prize of Brexit’ makes the UK particularly vulnerable to such pressure. But even though it is now negotiating four new trade agreements and 18 ‘rollovers’ of existing EU deals, not to mention a comprehensive agreement with the EU itself, the Government still lacks a firmly agreed position on many of the issues it will face.”

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The Institute for Government believes the UK “needs to be certain of which concessions it is willing to make and which it will not – even if that means the FTA (free trade agreement) fails”.

It declared: “That understanding needs to be collectively agreed by all members of Cabinet. The UK has made an unforced error in entering talks with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan before reaching such an understanding at home. It should seek to correct it as soon as possible.”

The Institute for Government makes some suggestions, all of which are eminently sensible but most or all of which, on the Conservative Government’s track record, look unlikely to be adopted.

These suggestions appear, although there is no sign that this is deliberate, to go in ascending order of unlikelihood.

The Institute for Government calls on the UK Government to “clarify its red lines”, adding: “Visible disagreement between Government departments on issues such as food standards can no longer be tolerated.”

It also recommends the setting up of stronger decision-making structures internally. Specifically it notes that “more authority below the top level of government, with greater involvement from arm’s-length regulators, would allow issues to be resolved more efficiently”.

The think-tank also calls on the Government to “allow Parliament greater powers of scrutiny”, adding: “Negotiators will benefit from being able to point to difficult stakeholders back home.”

Given the degree to which Parliament thwarted Boris Johnson’s efforts to drive Brexit through last autumn, before he secured a big majority in December’s General Election, it is difficult to see the Prime Minister rushing out of his way to “allow greater powers of scrutiny” but who knows?

Then there is what seems to be the least likely change in approach of all, especially from a Scottish perspective.

The Institute for Government recommends the ruling Conservatives “adopt a more co-operative approach with the devolved administrations” and declares “the Government must avoid a showdown between it and, in particular, Edinburgh”.

Given the Tories’ entrenched position on Brexit and their hidebound insistence on leaving the European single market, regardless of the fact the Scottish electorate was in 2016 and based on recent polling remains firmly in favour of EU membership, the possibility of the UK Government adopting a “more cooperative approach” seems extremely remote. And that, of course, is also a huge understatement.