UK government runs up £400,000 bill in attempt to strike US trade deal

The UK Government has spent close to £400,000 since last summer on high-profile lawyers and US media relations firms as part of its efforts to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington.
Trade secretary Liz Truss has been tasked with striking a UK-US trade deal. Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP/GettyTrade secretary Liz Truss has been tasked with striking a UK-US trade deal. Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty
Trade secretary Liz Truss has been tasked with striking a UK-US trade deal. Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Despite failing to strike an agreement or roll back damaging tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, the Department of International Trade (DIT) has already paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds for advice from US lawyers as it pursues one of the most important trade deals in British history.

In all, five American legal outfits have been enlisted to help Liz Truss, the trade secretary, and an army of civil servants, while a leading communications agency has secured a lucrative contract to “shift the conversation” away from the “confusion” surrounding Brexit.

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A DIT spokesperson said: “Obtaining expert legal advice to negotiate trade deals of this size and importance is standard practice. UK-US negotiations have proceeded at an impressive pace in-part due to the internal and external expertise we have in place. A change of US administration does not impact the advice and work undertaken so far.

“The Secretary of State for International Trade has stepped up talks with the US to get these unfair tariffs on UK exports removed and will be working with the new administration to get this issue resolved as a matter of urgency.”

The SNP said the UK government should be using such “huge chunks of cash” to end the punitive tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on imports of Scotch whisky.

While the price of the legal advice to date is explicitly set out in documents filed with the US Department of Justice, its value is less clear.

There was speculation a so-called ‘mini deal’ could be struck before Donald Trump left office, but no such agreement came to pass. With Joe Biden now in office, it is unclear the extent to which the talks will have to be reset. Lord Kim Darroch, a former UK ambassador to the US, has warned that the UK will be “lucky” to strike a deal with the US over the next four years.

Details of the legal advice, catalogued in filings under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which compels companies working for overseas governments to detail their income and work, show that the global law firm, Linklaters, was paid $431,961 (£316,000) by the DIT last year.

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Its FARA filing states that it has provided legal analysis, advice, reports, and support “concerning US law and legal structures relating to traditional subject matters of a free trade agreement.” Linklaters has in turn subcontracted swaths of its work to three US firms for legal advice, analysis and support.

The DIT has also hired Boston-based law firm, Fish & Richardson, and signed a contract with the New York-based communications agency, Finn Partners, worth up to $540,000 (£395,000). Records show the DIT paid it $104,475 (£764,000) between last April and September.

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In a breakdown of its work, Finn Partners cite the distribution of four media releases, and point to media coverage in publications such as Beef Magazine and Tri-State Livestock News.

In one document, the firm states that it has the experience to “begin to shift the conversation from one of uncertainty and confusion around Brexit to one of opportunity and future shared growth and economic prosperity.”

It adds: “Our team of experts across the network has experience in reframing complex conversations at the very highest levels - with a special focus on free trade, and international trade and investment.”George Adam, the SNP MSP, said: “Trade sanctions imposed by America on Scotch whisky, our biggest export success, are having a massive detrimental effect.

“If the Tories have huge chunks of cash to spend, they would be better spending it on finding a way to end these damaging tariffs to protect our hugely important whisky exports."

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