THROUGH NO fault of their own, farmers have been placed on the government's naughty list for Christmas goodies.

In the run up to Christmas, ministers took time out from defending its indefensible work parties to trumpet a new trade deal with Australia. In doing so it ignored every warning from the farming lobby. Making matters worse it wrapped this up in shiny Christmas wrapping to make the deal look like a real present, rather than one that threatens farming in return for a negligible potential gain for the economy.

That the deal is another victory for style over substance should come as no surprise. As things get worse for the Johnson government, it desperately needed to find some good news. Dressing up a deal as something it is not is just the sort of thing those who think themselves above the law when it comes to arranging parties would come up with.

The optics are simple. Promise people some cheaper beef and booze from Australia and they will soon forget the deal is economically irrelevant, destructive to UK farming, to trading with the EU and as far from a green approach to food sourcing as it is possible to be.

Ignoring all advice from the farm unions before the deal and criticism from them after it was struck, the government is telling farmers their interests have been protected. That inevitably brings to mind the 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you' comment that is second only to the 'the cheque is in the post' in the economical-with-the-truth stakes. It is true the deal is being phased in but it is the direction of travel that is cause for concern. The government wants this to be its blueprint for future trade deals.

If this is the case, farmers' interests will continue to be ignored and that will be even more serious when the focus switches to countries like Brazil that pose a greater and more immediate threat.

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This reassurance also ignores the potential impact on trade with the EU. It too is close to finalising a deal with Australia, but it will be one that protects agricultural interests. It will go to great pains to make sure the UK is not used as a conduit to bring Australian or any other farm products into the EU by the back door. The EU remains by far our biggest export market but that seems to be forgotten by the government in its enthusiasm to prove the rest of the world is a better prospect. That is certainly not the case for agriculture, which fares better supplying into a high value market like the EU than competing at the bottom.

Ministers are also suggesting agricultural exporters in Australia are more interested in supplying Asia than the UK. This ignores the reality that Australia built Asian markets because it is an aggressive and successful exporter. There is not a food exporting country that does not want to be in the UK. It is a high value, well managed market with supermarkets that are an exemplar when it comes to successful trading operations.

That Australia would not want a slice of that action is a bizarre claim. The key question remains whether farmers' interests have been sacrificed for the greater economic good or by a government desperate to prove that its flagship policy, Brexit, can deliver.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility is the honest broker when it comes to figures, created as it was to take these beyond political influence. Its estimate is that a trade deal with Australis could add a paltry 0.08% a year to the UK economy. That does not seem a great reward and it is even less impressive when loss of free access to the EU could represent a 4% annual hit for the UK economy.

Lauding this trade deal as a success and as evidence the UK had a bright future as part of a pan-Pacific trade area, the UK trade minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, claimed other countries will see the deal as evidence of how 'expansive' Britain wants to be.

Cynics will say it is easy to be 'expansive' when, as in this case, you give the other side everything it wanted. For farmers there is no disguising that what they got for Christmas was a lump of coal wrapped up in shiny paper, designed solely to impress others.