Rishi Sunak has refused to accept the government’s failure to strike a trade deal with the US is a “broken promise”, blaming the pandemic and war in Ukraine for the “changing situation”.
During a visit to the US, the prime minister was asked if he accepted “as a matter of fact” the Conservatives have not met their 2019 manifesto ambition to strike a deal with Washington within the first three years of government.
He said: “I think you have to look at the macroeconomic situation. It’s evolved since then and it’s important the economic partnerships evolved to deal with the opportunities and threats of today.
“If you look at what’s happening now, we face more threats of our economic security. So it’s important that actually the UK and the US are talking about how do we strengthen our resilience, working together, improve the strength of our supply chains.”
Mr Sunak was pressed that this is still a “broken promise”.
He said: “Since then 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 to ensure that we’re focusing our engagement economically on the things that will make the most difference to the British people.”
It was put to the prime minister that the war and pandemic had not stopped the UK from striking deals with other countries since Brexit.
He said the UK had “grown our trade with America by 20% last year” and also pointed to a £14bn investment from the US into British jobs.
He insisted “the real challenge we face are the threats to our economic security” and that is what he will discuss when he meets President Joe Biden later today.
“I think that’s the thing that we should be focusing on right now,” he added.
Mr Sunak admitted en route to Washington that a free trade agreement with the US “has not been a priority for a while” for either country.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson and his government had championed a US trade deal as a big Brexit bonus, while President Trump insisted in 2017 the UK was “at the front of the queue”.
But Mr Johnson was forced to admit in 2021 that the US has “a lot of fish to fry” and that a trade deal might not be secured by the 2024 general election.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it is “clear” the Conservatives have failed on their promise to strike a trade agreement.
He told reporters: “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.”
Sir Keir accused Mr Sunak of being focused only on “managing” the Conservative Party after reports he has accepted Mr Johnson’s recommendations for peerages.
The prime minister refused to be drawn on whether this was true, saying the honours process hasn’t concluded and “until it does, it wouldn’t be right for me to comment any further”.
Sir Keir, speaking on a visit to a British Steel steelworks in Scunthorpe, said: “The Conservative Party is, as ever, talking about the Conservative Party and how they appease different bits of their own party. Whether it’s Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, Boris Johnson’s peerages, all the prime minister is doing is managing his own party instead of running the country.”