Boris Johnson’s hopes of striking an early trade deal with the US — seen as one of the biggest prizes of Brexit — have faded after new warnings that such pacts were not a priority for president Joe Biden’s new administration.
Liz Truss, UK trade secretary, insists that much of the work needed to secure a trade deal has been done, but senior UK government officials have admitted that an agreement may not be possible in 2021.
Janet Yellen, Mr Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary, said the new president had made it clear that the US economy had to be upgraded before more trade barriers were taken down.
“President Biden has been clear that he will not sign any new free trade agreements before the US makes major investments in American workers and our infrastructure,” she added.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday there was no set timeline for completing the deal. The administration’s “primary priorities” were tackling coronavirus and providing economic relief to Americans, she added.
Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, told the BBC it was “a stretch” to think a UK-US trade deal would happen during Mr Biden’s first term as president, saying Britain would not be a top priority.
“When he comes to do one, there are two much bigger trade deals that he could potentially do, rather than a deal with a medium-sized country of 65m people,” he said.
Lord Darroch was referring to a possible EU trade deal or a new trans-Pacific agreement. Barack Obama, former US president, said in 2016 that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” for trade talks if it voted for Brexit.
British officials tried to complete much of the content of a UK-US trade agreement while Donald Trump was president, hoping it could progress without large amounts of further work from Mr Biden’s new team.
Allies of Ms Truss did not discount the possibility of a deal in 2021. “An agreement would show the world that together the UK and US are serious about revitalising rules-based trade and moving beyond the protectionism of Trump,” said one.
But with the most difficult areas of a UK-US deal — including agriculture and pharmaceuticals — still unresolved, hopes of a swift deal are fading.
If the US Congress is not notified of the completion of a deal by April, it will lose “fast-track” approval protections under an obscure piece of US trade law that expires later this year.
Under those protections, lawmakers are unable to make substantial changes or amendments to the text of any deal, although they are able to vote for or against it as a whole. If the April deadline is missed, the deal risks being bogged down in disputes when it reaches Congress.
Meanwhile, David Davis, a former Tory cabinet minister, has argued that any UK trade deal with the US must re-examine London’s “asymmetric, ineffective and fundamentally unfair” extradition treaty with Washington.
“When the 2003 extradition treaty was introduced, it was sold on the basis that it would be used principally for paedophiles, murderers and terrorists,” he said.
“But the people we are extraditing to the US today are, mostly, white-collar businessmen who pose no physical danger to UK or US citizens.”
Mr Davis said the extradition treaty was being used by the US to extend its jurisdiction into commercial matters in the UK, a problem that would become more acute if a trade deal was signed between the two sides. Downing Street has denied the treaty is lopsided.