Sunak refuses to accept failure on US trade deal is 'broken promise'

Rishi Sunak is pushing for a new partnership, ITV News' Anushka Asthana reports

The UK has so far failed to secure a trade deal with the US, despite a manifesto pledge to do so within three years, but Rishi Sunak has refused to accept the government has broken its promise.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it is "clear they’ve failed on that promise amongst many other promises" but Mr Sunak rejected that accusation, blaming the lack of a trade deal on the changing “macroeconomic situation”.

Asked if he would accept the failure amounted to a "broken promise" during a visit to the US, the PM said: "We’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had a war in Ukraine, and that has changed the macroeconomic situation.

"The right response to that is ensure that we’re focusing our engagement economically on the things that will make the most difference.”

He is in Washington for talks with Joe Biden but discussions on a UK-US trade deal are not on the agenda.

“Actually, what I’ll be talking to President Biden about today is how can the UK and the US work together to ensure security for our citizens. I think that’s the thing that we should be focusing on right now," he said.

One prize of Brexit was to be the UK's ability to strike trade deals with countries around the world. However, many of the 72 deals so far agreed have been heavily criticised.

The vast majority of trade deals agreed since leaving the EU - 68 of 72 - are rolled over from when the UK was a member.

Farmers, for instance, have complained that deals struck with Australia and New Zealand could result in cheap imports being sold in the UK, further damaging their industry.

Former environment, food, and rural affairs secretary George Eustice claimed the deal was "not actually a very good deal for the UK" because of the effect it might have on UK farmers

Former PM Boris Johnson insisted ahead of the 2019 general election that the UK was "first in line" for a trade deal with the US and talks officially launched in May 2020.

Mr Sunak says the war in Ukraine has got in the way of that but the election of Mr Biden scuppered any hope of an agreement, well before Russia invaded.

Labour leader Sir Keir said: “In 2019, the Conservative Party had in their manifesto that they’d have a trade agreement with the US by 2022. So, it’s clear they’ve failed on that promise amongst many other promises.

“But that’s not the only failure. They’ve got no strategy, they’ve got no way of taking the country forward, and what we need is an industrial strategy, a plan for growth.

“This is what Labour is working on, which is how we take our country forward. So, you’ve got a government at the moment that is not only failing on its promises but is also sort of sitting it out.”

Instead, the prime minister has been keen to talk about his plans to make the UK a world leader when it comes to regulation of artificial intelligence.

Speaking to broadcasters during his Washington DC visit on Thursday, Mr Sunak said: “I think that UK is well-placed to take a leadership role in shaping the conversation about how we regulate AI so that we can enjoy its benefits, which clearly there are many, but do so in a way that protects our countries and citizens, and make sure it is used safely and securely.

Asked about hopes for a trade deal by reporters while flying to America, Mr Sunak said: “For a while now, that has not been a priority for either the US or UK."

“What we’re both focused on is making sure that our economic partnership reflects the particular challenges and opportunities of the time that we’re in right now.”

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“The UK is research-based, (has the) companies — everything points to us.

“Our ability to move quickly, to put regulation in place, is really important in an industry and technology that itself is changing very rapidly.

“I’ll be discussing that with President Biden today. I’m delighted the US is supporting our summit. I’ve also spoken to the companies involved about this when I convened them in Downing Street a few weeks ago.

“I think they’re also keen to support the UK in helping to develop what needs to be a global architecture for regulation ultimately.”