Last Friday, Katy Balls, the deputy political editor of The Spectator magazine, highlighted that there is a growing divide emerging in the post-Brexit Conservative Party.
However, this divide is not a rebirth or mutation of the party’s longstanding disunity on the issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union. This is a divide revolves around the potential trade deal forged between Whitehall and Washington DC.
Nevertheless, without the political events on either side of the Atlantic in 2016, this is not a debate that the party could have. It was the decision taken by the British people to leave the European Union that has enabled the government to pursue free trade agreements with our allies across the world.
Equally, as important was the election of Donald Trump in November of that year. Trump, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, is an outspoken Anglophile and has made clear that he wants a trade deal agreed to quickly.
Nonetheless, the debate is so far removed from the debate on Europe that Brexiteers and Remainers find themselves united on different lines.
The ‘Lidl free marketeers’, championed by the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, favour an unhinged trade deal with the United States as a way to increase choice for the British consumer. She is followed by the new intake of ‘red wall’ MPs. They believe that the competition will ensure their constituents save money on their food bills by having access to cheaper products.
On the other hand, the ‘Waitrose protectionists’ wish to reimpose trade barriers, particularly on agricultural products, in order to inoculate British farmers from any threat by competition that our transatlantic cousins can offer us. In addition, a group of eco-friendly Tories worry about the threat that a trade deal could pose to the high environmental standards that British farmers currently abide by.
The proponents of this include predominantly rural Tory MPs and green Conservatives. However, Owen Paterson, who not only represents the rural seat of North Shropshire but also as the former Environment Secretary, is a clear exception.
In an article for GlobalVision, Paterson argued that Brexit is an opportunity to pursue free trade across the world and that the amendments made by Tory protectionists to the Agriculture Bill would otherwise inhibit.
While only 22 Conservative MPs mustered up the courage to vote for such an amendment, the divide on the trade deal is even more divisive.
Subsequently, the newly found division in the Conservative Party is less like that on Europe and more like the corn laws. Sir Robert Peel was the free market Prime Minister in charge of a protectionist party, but in 1846 he was able to repeal the burdensome tariffs imposed on wheat from overseas.
The debate between the Lidl free marketeer and the Waitrose protectionist is almost identical to the factional politics that divided Peelites from Disraeli’s protectionist platoon.
As in 1846, the protectionists within the party forget that there are benefits for the British farmer in free trade. Under a trade deal, the British farmer will have direct access to a larger pool of consumers. The US has already removed restrictions on British beef and, consequently, over £60 million worth of export opportunities will be readily available to British beef farmers in the next five years.
It will be equally beneficial to the Welsh economy. By forging new a comprehensive economic relationship with the United States, the sheep-farmer across the River Severn can utilise the enormous demand for sheep meat.
The Americans import approximately $1 billion in sheep meat per annum; it would be foolish to ignore this as an example of the clear benefits for producers, as well as consumers, that a free trade agreements with our American allies would deliver to Britain.
Therefore, the Conservative Party must pursue a bold approach to free trade, one that emulates Victorian liberalism rather than 19th-century conservatism. The access that an agreement, including agriculture, will bring to the British consumer and farmer will be far profound than the short-sighted achievements that a protectionist policy would bring.
Butchering this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to create a transatlantic free trade agreement will not only limit the opportunities for British farmers to adapt and explore a new market, but it will also fail to lower hefty living costs.
By J Walters