A DOUBLE-TAKE seemed like an only natural reaction when news of the UK Government having signed a memorandum of understanding on trade development with the US state of Indiana dropped into the email inbox last Friday.

This confirmed that, yes, the UK Government, which both in the run-up to and in the wake of Brexit has made a very great deal of noise about its desire to do a trade deal with the US as a whole, had with this desire unfulfilled reached an agreement with an American state.

While not wishing to take away from whatever modest boost to trade and investment might come from the UK Government’s agreement with Indiana, state-level deals did not seem to be what Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiters had in mind when they made huge (and vacuous) promises ahead of the 2016 Leave vote.

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It really does seem, with game-changing, post-Brexit trade deals having failed to materialise in the wake of the Leave vote as was always utterly inevitable, that the Johnson administration is becoming more than a little desperate.

This impression was only reinforced by the gushing comments from UK Government ministers accompanying the Indiana deal.

The Department for International Trade hailed the signing of the UK’s “first state-level trade and economic development memorandum of understanding”, with Indiana, as a “milestone in trade relations with the US”. Really?

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UK international trade minister Ranil Jayawardena declared: “It’s been fantastic to see the depth and breadth of interest from Indiana industry in trading with the United Kingdom.

“With the signing of this MoU, British businesses can capitalise on the great opportunities for collaboration in areas like innovation and manufacturing.”

The Department for International Trade described Indiana as an “economic powerhouse, offering UK firms significant opportunities in areas like renewable energy, advanced manufacturing and pharmaceuticals”.

And Secretary of State for International Trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan, for her part, signalled a belief that the state-level deal would even help the Johnson administration’s so-called “levelling up” agenda.

She also talked, with a tone entirely in keeping with the populist agenda of the Johnson administration, about the deal showing “Global Britain in action”.

Ms Trevelyan said: “Our ambitious agreement with Indiana will help deliver value to UK businesses and support our areas of shared interest, such as levelling up.

“This is Global Britain in action, making innovative deals on the world stage – and will help UK companies grow faster, innovate more and support jobs and economic growth.”

This assessment of the deal seemed, to put it very mildly, a little bit over the top.

As the enthusiasm simply brimmed over in the UK Government’s announcement of the deal, Minister of State for International Trade Penny Mordaunt declared she was “so excited”.

She declared: “Our first state-level agreement of this kind is a major milestone for UK-US trade relations and I’m so excited for UK businesses, who can now start reaping the rewards of closer ties with Indiana.

“Our state-level strategy is paying off and this is just the first of many agreements we’ll be signing in the future as we look to bolster our £200bn trading relationship with the US.”

So is all this excitement and enthusiasm justified by the hard facts and cold numbers?

The Department for International Trade noted that “the UK is the seventh-largest export market for Indiana, and the state buys $1.4 billion worth of goods from the UK”.

And it declared: “This agreement will act as a springboard to grow this even further.”

As always with new deals being pursued and agreed by the UK Government, it is obviously crucial as part of any rational assessment to compare their potential with what has been lost with the ending of frictionless trade with the European Union.

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The Tories appear to be hell-bent on giving the impression that Brexit has unleashed Britain’s potential, as the Boris Johnson camp’s sloganeering would have it. This populist politicking, including all the “Global Britain” and other assorted rhetoric post-Brexit, makes it even more important to analyse the numbers. If light is not shone on these, the electorate could easily be hoodwinked into taking the effusive proclamations about new trade deals by the Johnson administration at face value .

The $1.4bn figure for UK goods exports to Indiana equates to £1.1bn at current exchange rates.

UK exports to the EU, of goods and services, totalled £251bn in 2020, so we really should not get carried away about the $1.4bn figure trumpeted by the Department for International Trade.

That is not to slight Indiana. It is just that the EU is by far the UK’s biggest export market, and is obviously geographically much closer.

It is also worth noting that the elusive full UK-US trade deal, even if it were to come to pass, would not have the impact many might imagine from the amount of noise the Tories have made about it.

The Conservative Government’s assessment of the free trade deal it has been trying to do with the US is that such an agreement would boost UK gross domestic product by around 0.07% or 0.16% on a 15-year horizon, under two different scenarios.

The Theresa May government’s forecasts in November 2018 showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK GDP in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries.

The Johnson administration has clamped down dramatically on immigration to the UK from the EEA.

It is easy to understand why the UK Government might be frustrated by its absolute failure to get anywhere near the US trade deal it so desired, even though the benefits of such an agreement would be tiny compared with the Brexit damage.

At the time of the Brexit vote, Donald Trump was in power so there was a similar brand of populism on the other side of the pond. However, even with Mr Trump’s enthusiastic support for Brexit, a trade deal never looked like the biggest priority for him.

And Joe Biden has looked far more lukewarm on a free trade deal with the UK than the Trump administration since becoming President.

So the UK Government is now pottering about looking for state-level trade development agreements in the US.

That is up to it, and maybe there will be some modest benefits. However, greeting such deals as something that is “so exciting” or a “milestone” in the context of a UK economy already blighted by Brexit, with worse to come, is quite frankly ridiculous.