Foreign Office cuts in Washington 'threaten US trade deal'

·2 min read
Lord Darroch - Paul Morigi/Getty
Lord Darroch - Paul Morigi/Getty

Years of Foreign Office cuts have undermined the British embassy in Washington and the UK's quest for a trade deal with the US, leaving diplomats failing to promote “Brexit Britain”, according to a report.

The UK embassy under Lord Darroch’s stewardship “failed to adjust swiftly enough” to the referendum and made an “underwhelming” attempt to engage US Congress and rally support for a deal, a report by Policy Exchange argues.

No blame is attached to Lord Darroch himself. The failure is seen is broader and institutional, dating back decades, including underinvestment in the Foreign Embassy and the embassy.

“There are currently bigger local UK embassy communications teams in each of Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing than in Washington,” writes the author, Ben Judah.

British embassy in Washington DC - Daniel Slim/AFP
British embassy in Washington DC - Daniel Slim/AFP

The situation was exacerbated, Mr Judah adds, by the Foreign Office decision to axe the embassy’s political counsellor on Capitol Hill in 2016, leaving Britain at a relative disadvantage at a time when it is trying to relaunch itself as an independent trading nation.

“Above all, it is affecting the appetite and sense of urgency in Congress for a trade deal with the UK.”

In the past, such as during the Second World War and during the Northern Ireland troubles, the British embassy was scaled up. This was not done in the aftermath of Brexit.

They argue there was no “strong and proactive British voice” in DC to fight for a good deal for the UK as it exited the European Union.

“From a UK perspective, new capacity, a new focus on Congress and a new communications and outreach strategy for the British Embassy in Washington will be key to meeting the FCDO’s new post-Brexit objectives.”

The release of the report, comes at a time when the UK is struggling to strike an early trade deal with the Biden administration, which has always been seen as one of the biggest prizes of Brexit.

UK officials had hoped to complete much of the content of an agreement while Mr Trump, a supporter of Brexit, was president.

President Joe Biden’s administration has come to the White House with a long list of priorities, topped by Covid-19, climate change and the economy, making it unlikely that trade with the UK will be tackled in his first 100 days.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, last week said there was no set timeline for completing any deal, while senior officials have privately admitted it is unlikely to be this year.

The report was disputed by a Foreign Office spokesman: “We don’t recognise this flawed caricature of the relationship. We are well connected at every level, with ten diplomatic missions across the US.

"The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and other ministers are already engaging on our shared priorities - from trade and security to Coronavirus and climate change.”

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