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The UK is considering applying to join the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal after Boris Johnson conceded that a bilateral agreement with Washington will not happen before the next general election.
Tying up with the three North American powers could be an alternative to working out a bespoke US-UK free-trade agreement, the Government believes.
Joe Biden has indicated he is not interested in pursuing new bilateral deals, unlike Donald Trump. But expanding existing agreements may prove less politically controversial.
Asked during his trip to the US whether a transatlantic deal would be done by 2024, Mr Johnson said: “We’re going to keep going for free-trade deals as fast as we can.”
He added: “We’re doing major exports with free-trade deals, including in the United States and I have plenty of reason to be optimistic about that, but I just, you know that these, the Americans do negotiate very hard. What I want for our country is a great free-trade deal. I won’t settle for anything less.”
Appearing with US vice president Kamala Harris on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said there had been “real progress” on trade, welcoming the end of a “strange ban” on imports of British beef.
A senior Government figure said that if bilateral talks with the US fail to come to fruition, the UK would continue to explore other options including becoming the fourth member of USMCA. They added: “There are a variety of different ways to do this. The question is whether the US administration is ready. The ball is in the US’s court.”
Britain currently has more comprehensive trading arrangements with Canada and Mexico than with the US, a point that UK officials have stressed in meetings with their American counterparts.
If Mr Johnson fails to secure a trade agreement with Washington, he will go into the next election with one of his key manifesto pledge unfulfilled and unanswered questions about how Britain can make the most of Brexit.
Before the last election in 2019, the Conservatives said they would “aim to have 80 per cent of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years, starting with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan”. Deals with Australia and Japan have already been agreed and a pact with New Zealand is expected within weeks.
The UK is also seeking to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-member trade bloc including Japan, which was originally set up by the US before Donald Trump withdrew from it.
Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary, has said she wants to integrate foreign and trade policy more closely.
She told reporters: “What I am keen to do in the job as Foreign Secretary is to link much more closely our trade work, our diplomacy work and our security work. Because now we are an independent trading nation, we have a real opportunity to be much more free and flexible about the way we use our policies.”