Don’t Liam Fox and Michael Gove know how to use Skype? Just as the Cabinet finally start to reach agreement on the nuts and bolts of the UK’s Brexit negotiating position, a row has broken out across the Atlantic about chlorinated chicken.
Much to Fox’s frustration, his trip to Washington to begin US/UK trade talks has been dominated by chicken. After accusing the British press of being ‘obsessed’ by the issue of chlorinated chicken being a part of a trade deal, Fox has attempted to dampen down speculation on the issue. Speaking to Newsnight yesterday from Washington, Fox acknowledged farming concerns – but declined to rule out allowing chlorine-washed chicken into the UK market place as part of a deal with the US:
‘There’s no food safety issue with chlorine-washed goods because the EU themselves say that’s perfectly safe. I think more of an issue would be around the animal welfare issues that that might suggest and of course we’ve got no intention of reducing the quality and standards of our regulation and that’s one of the things we’ve made very clear.’
However, across the pond Michael Gove has busied himself on the Today programme suggesting the opposite. In an interview with Nick Robinson, Gove said that chlorinated chicken is a red line that will not be crossed in the trade talks:
Nick: Yes to chlorinated chicken or no?
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) July 26, 2017
‘I made it perfectly clear, and indeed this is something on which all members of the Government are agreed, that we are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal.’
Now – as Fox himself has said – focussing on chlorinated chicken is a distraction from the bigger picture. It is one detail of one aspect of a trade deal with America and right now there is no need to tie the government’s hands either way, or get the negotiations off to a bad start by criticising American farming practises. Despite this, those in the Remain camp have quite successfully jumped on the story – scaremongering about ‘bleached chicken’ – and made it so Fox’s productive trip has been dominated by poultry chat on a daily basis.
What the story does not need is to be given new life by two Cabinet ministers coming out with contradicting lines in the media within hours of each other. This is a self-inflicted error that just means people are more likely to spend the next day talking about chicken than the fact that the world’s largest economy is keen to do a trade deal with the UK.