Boris Johnson Scott Morrison G7
(Image: Peter Nicholls/PA Wire)

You know that the so-called Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement is small beer when Boris Johnson declines to “exaggerate the overall increase of respective GDPs from this”, and says “it’s more important politically and symbolically”.

The numbers being bandied around about the benefits are rounding errors for both economies — 0.02% of GDP for the UK and 0.06% for Australia, though at least the UK media immediately placed the numbers under scrutiny rather than parroting them like Australian journalists did.

The fact that Australia got so little, especially for its beef exporters, who’ll have to wait until the late 2030s for proper access to the UK, is economically irrelevant but interesting politically.

Scott Morrison had a potential Packer-Bond moment here — Boris Johnson was desperate for a deal, any deal, to demonstrate that he had a plan for post-Brexit Britain and an economy that’s been smashed by COVID. In the March quarter, the UK’s GDP was 6% smaller than in February last year and it was still arguing with the EU about trade and border details. A “symbolic” deal was indeed important, to suggest Johnson had some kind of plan.

We’ve been here before, of course — right here in Australia. Tony Abbott in 2014 was in the same position as Johnson — no agenda other than stopping the boats, pretending to be fiscally disciplined, and free trade agreements that he claimed would deliver massive benefits (none of which have ever materialised).

In particular, Abbott was desperate to get a free trade deal with Xi Jinping, and abandoned years of negotiation aimed at protecting Australia’s interests in order to secure one. He even promised to revive the dormant extradition treaty between Australia and China as part of the price for getting a deal.

As it turned out, Xi played Abbott for a sucker, with a deal that was a dud before China binned it out of confected outrage at Australia, though fortunately Labor opposition and a Liberal revolt stopped the endorsement of an extradition treaty.

Morrison’s relatively poor return from the UK suggests he failed to exploit Johnson in the way Xi exploited Abbott, and demand much better terms or walk away, leaving Johnson dangling. It wouldn’t have made any difference economically, but it would have been a useful sop to the Nationals, who believe in mercantilist notions about market access. Apart from UK multinationals, which will get the right to sue the Australian government, the only benefits of these trade deals are political. And on that score, Johnson has come out ahead.