Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of an “early ... very strong, very open free trade agreement” with the UK was one of the highlights for Theresa May of last weekend’s international G20 summit in China.
It came amid warnings from Japan over the possibility of its companies leaving a post-Brexit Britain and confirmation from Barack Obama that the US will seek trade deals with the EU and Pacific states before the UK.
Now Australian minister Steven Ciobo has made it clear during a visit to London that only “preliminary” discussions are possible at this stage.
The negotiation of a formal deal will have to wait until after Mrs May has completed the two-year Brexit procedure under Article 50 of the EU treaties, which she has said she will not trigger before the start of 2017.
Mr Ciobo said an eventual deal could be struck “quite quickly”, because of Australia’s close historic and cultural ties with the UK, but added: “You would expect it’s at least two and a half years off.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “My formal advice is that - and this is from the UK side - the UK is unable to negotiate or sign an agreement prior to the formal exit from the EU.
“We can certainly have preliminary discussions and that’s part of what I’m doing here this week. Preliminary discussions around what a post-Brexit Australia-UK trade deal might look like. Some discussions about what our ambitions and aspirations are, and there’s been good alignment in terms of those conversations.”
Mr Ciobo and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox announced the creation of a bilateral trade working group at official level to “scope out the parameters of a future ambitious and comprehensive Australia-UK free trade agreement (FTA)”. Ministers will meet twice a year to monitor progress.
“We want the working group to advance an agenda that will ensure the expeditious transition to FTA negotiations when the UK has formally completed its negotiations to exit the EU,” said Dr Fox and Mr Ciobo in a statement.
Mrs May faces a grilling from MPs as she takes her first session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons amid concerns that the Government is struggling to agree a strategy for Brexit. She will also make a statement to MPs on the outcome of the G20 talks.
The Prime Minister has distanced herself from Brexit Secretary David Davis’s suggestion that it is “very improbable” the UK can remain part of the European single market if it wishes to regain control over its own borders.
Although Mr Davis was speaking from the despatch box - where ministers are expected to speak on behalf of the Government - Mrs May’s spokeswoman insisted he was voicing a personal opinion and not official policy.
The apparent rebuke sparked claims that ministers are “confused” and cannot agree policy on withdrawing from the European Union following June’s referendum vote to leave.
Mrs May can also expect to face questions over how Britain will control immigration after exiting the EU.
During her visit to China, she ruled out the introduction of an Australian-style points-based system for immigration policy as proposed by the Leave campaign, saying it was ‘’not a silver bullet’’ to reduce the numbers coming to the UK.
But her spokeswoman poured cold water on suggestions that she has instead plumped for a work permit system which would require EU nationals to secure a job offer before coming to settle in the UK.
Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith urged Jeremy Corbyn to use Mrs May’s appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions to pile on pressure over Brexit, using an open letter to The Times Red Box to suggest a series of questions on the issue.
“I’m sorry to say that in her first PMQs in July, you put Theresa May under no pressure at all,” wrote Mr Smith to the Labour leader.
“Perhaps the same reticence about standing up for Britain’s place in the EU which led you to campaign so ineffectively for Remain also puts you off exposing the weaknesses and contradictions in the Government’s position - but continuing to fail to take Theresa May on over Brexit would be a dereliction of duty.”
He added: “I’m sure you agree that Labour needs a leader who can take on the Tories effectively, both inside and outside Parliament. I hope you can improve on recent performances.”