The ruling Conservatives’ efforts to big up their paltry free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand took something of a comic turn this week, with the revelation that the UK Government was shipping signed copies of The Beano to the two countries.

This offering was one of a selection of items sent to Australia and New Zealand to mark the trade agreements taking effect from Wednesday.

After getting over the surprise at the surely somewhat bizarre efforts to promote these deals - the cacophony around which has been as loud as the benefits from the agreements are tiny – a picture formed in the mind.

It was of erstwhile prime minister Boris Johnson wearing the red and black hooped top favoured by The Beano’s Dennis the Menace, causing great damage to the UK economy with his Brexit sledgehammer and then smiling to himself as everyone else picked up the pieces.

So maybe The Beano, the copies of which were signed by the venerable and rightly highly regarded comic’s editor, John Anderson, is an apposite publication with which to mark trade deals which some, notably farmers and food producers, might well view as troublesome indeed.

The hype bursting out of a press release this week from the Department for Business & Trade, proclaiming the agreements yet again, was palpable.

In this, Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch declared: “Today is a historic moment as our first trade deals to be negotiated post-Brexit come into effect.

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“Businesses up and down the country will now be able to reap the rewards of our status as an independent trading nation and seize new opportunities, driving economic growth, innovation and higher wages.”

There it was again – “an independent trading nation”. The UK was such before Brexit.

The “seize new opportunities” is a fascinating take on things, given the benefits from the trade deals negotiated since Brexit pale into irrelevance relative to the cost of leaving the European Union.

For the same reason, the “driving economic growth” observation is absolute nonsense. Brexit continues to be a huge drag on economic growth. And the desperate attempts to negotiate new trade deals with very little benefit – and which have in the case of the Australia and New Zealand agreements caused major and justified concerns among farmers and food producers - have not changed the reality that the UK economy is very much worse off for the country having left the EU.

The exuberant press release from the Department for Business & Trade also declared: “International Trade Minister Nigel Huddleston will tour DHL’s southern distribution centre near Heathrow to see off two handpicked consignments of UK goods, some of the first to be sent to Australia and New Zealand under the new deals.”

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It added: “Iconic British goods from across the country including Beano comics signed by Beano editor John Anderson, Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky, Brighton Gin, The Cambridge Satchel Co. bags and Fever-Tree mixers are all among the items which will be sent from the UK Government to the Australian and New Zealand trade ministers. Many of the items included will benefit from the removal of tariffs under the deals.

“The parcels will also include an England cricket top signed by James Anderson and Emma Lamb, a Wales rugby shirt signed by the men’s team and a real tennis racket from Gray’s of Cambridge.”

The press release, tailored for a Scottish audience which was perhaps interesting given the opposition north of the Border to Brexit, also declared “the agreements could also mean reduced prices for Scottish consumers on favourites such as wine, Tim Tams and kiwi fruit”.


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It all just added to a picture of a UK Government focused on frippery and entirely detached from the everyday realities for households and businesses, which have of course been affected in a very negative way by Brexit, the Tories’ failure to get a grip on the energy price crisis and other huge errors such as austerity.

Forecasts drawn up by Theresa May’s government in 2018 showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product 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 Tories have imposed a major clampdown on immigration from the EEA.

The UK Government’s impact assessment of the Australia trade deal shows a boost to GDP from this of just 0.08% by 2035. The forecast New Zealand trade agreement benefits are even smaller than those projected from the Australia deal. The Department for International Trade (since renamed) observed that, for the New Zealand deal, its “sensitivity analysis…suggests the estimated impact on long run GDP could vary between 0.02% and 0.03% (0.023% and 0.034% respectively, to three decimal places)”. The third decimal place does not make much of a difference. And the benefit estimates for both the Australia and New Zealand deals are patently very small indeed.

Not for the first time, this all triggers a degree of wonder over why on earth the UK Government keeps wanting to highlight the Australia and New Zealand trade deals.

Martin Kennedy, president of NFU (National Farmers Union) Scotland, thankfully, in contrast to the UK Government, had something of substance to say about the Australia and New Zealand agreements.

He declared: “The Government’s track record on these FTAs (free trade agreements) is one of failure.

“They were negotiated with politically driven haste in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU, and they saw access to our food and drink sectors as bargaining chips to secure what they perceived as lucrative markets in other sectors. There was little or nothing in these damaging deals for Scottish producers.”

“Failure” is exactly what the Tories have delivered on trade. They wilfully discarded with their hard Brexit something extremely valuable - frictionless trade with the giant EEA - while chasing paltry, chicken-feed deals which could not even be characterised as consolation prizes on the most upbeat view.

However, while everyone else pays the price, all we get from the Tories is irrational exuberance.