Britain’s high commissioner in Australia has been forced onto national TV Down Under to try to smooth over a row over bizarre comments about a possible trade deal which have been branded “sledging” in Canberra.
The embarrassing development was privately described by one Australian government minister of “counter-productive” to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss’s hopes of striking a deal to partially make up for the UK’s loss of trade opportunities due to Brexit.
Anonymous sources in Ms Truss’s Department for International Trade were reported to have said she was planning to throw down the gauntlet over the “glacially slow” progress in negotiations when she speaks to Australian counterpart Dan Tehan in face-to-face talks in London this week.
“She plans to sit him down in the Locarno Room [in the Foreign Office] in an uncomfortable chair, so he has to deal with her directly for nine hours,” said the source.
The source reportedly described Mr Tehan as “inexperienced” compared to Ms Truss, adding: “He needs to show that he can play at this level.”
Australia’s ABC News said the comments were greeted “with a mixture of disbelief and laughter” in Canberra.
While Mr Tehan’s office refused to comment, the broadcaster quoted one minister as saying that the comments appeared to reflect UK desperation to rush through a deal.
“A bit of sledging. It’s not a very good tactic though,” he added.
“I would actually think it’s more likely to be counterproductive. No doubt they’ll try to blame it on the media.”
UK High Commissioner Vicki Treadell tried to damp down the row, telling Australian TV viewers that Mr Tehan would receive a warm welcome and would not be made uncomfortable during talks.
“I know the venue that is being used and certainly the chairs in the room in question are very comfortable,” she told ABC.
“This is a trade negotiation, so there will be tactics on both sides.
“But what we both want and the political ambition between Britain and Australia is there to get a gold-standard deal.”
Australia is also engaged in trade talks with the EU, which ministers have previously indicated take priority over negotiations with Britain as the European market represents a much larger export opportunity.
ABC quoted an unnamed Australian minister as saying that London appeared to be trying to “shift any blame on lack of progress to us”.
“The UK still hasn’t landed a new deal post-Brexit, just continuity deals,” said the minister, referring to deals that have been rolled over from the UK’s time in the EU.
“Negotiations with the US and NZ continue to be unresolved too, not just us.”