British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says New Zealand will be no worse off as a result of the UK’s departure from the European Union, following bilateral talks with Prime Minister Bill English.
Johnson dodged questions about whether his own position could be improved when speaking to media at the tail end of his New Zealand trip.
The senior UK politician reiterated earlier comments that New Zealand was “at or near to” the front of the queue for a free trade deal post-Brexit, brushing aside possible opposition from British farmers to an increase in dairy and sheep-meat imports.
“The key thing to stress here is that no-one’s going to be any worse off - no party in the deal that we’re going to do is going to be any worse off. We’re going to get a great deal that works for everybody.”
He offered similar support for maintaining visa access for Kiwis in the face of recent concern over tightening of the rules, saying his personal experience had shown him the value of immigration.
“I used to be the Mayor of London which was a city that - a bit like Auckland - was incredibly diverse, multiracial and all the rest of it, and in my view benefited from being open to talent. Forty percent of Londoners are born abroad, I think it’s 43 percent of people in Auckland.”
Johnson said one of the drivers of Brexit was a feeling that the UK needed more control over immigration - but that did not mean life would become more difficult for Kiwi expats.
“On the ancestry visas and the overseas experience [youth mobility visa] and stuff like that, no, we will want to maintain a regime that is at least as attractive as the current regime…
“I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face - Brexit is not, was not, will not be about Britain turning away from the world.”
Tory ructions 'pass me by'
Asked about the impact of internal Conservative ructions on Brexit negotiations, with the weakened Theresa May fighting off potential challengers, Johnson gave an answer fit for a Tui billboard.
“I don’t wish in any way to sound complacent, but I’ve been travelling in Japan and now in beautiful New Zealand, and any such activities completely pass me by, nor am I aware - no-one has sent me news of any such infighting.”
Johnson conceded the snap election “did not evolve entirely in the way that the Government had hoped or would have wanted - I’ll put that out there”, but pointed out UK Labour did not win while the Conservatives had a workable majority “with our friends from Northern Ireland”.
“We are getting on with the business of governing, which is overwhelmingly what the British people want to see. I think our friends and partners around the world can be confident that we’re going to get this thing done, and done in style.”
Would he heed the advice of an Englishman at the war memorial service, who shouted out: “Boris for PM”?
“I don’t know whether you were as eagle-eyed as I was at that wonderful ceremony yesterday, but I also spotted a protester who took a diametrically opposite view….
“What the British people want to see is us getting on with the job - [they do not] see any need for any more political kerfuffle.”
Not a categorical denial, then, but Johnson will likely keep his cards close to his chest for some time, as a delay in changing leaders could work in his favour.
Focus on protecting trade access
Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee appeared to enjoy his time with his British counterpart, describing Johnson as “an extremely engaging individual [who] has a wonderful mind that enables great conversations”.
Brownlee said the clear message was that Brexit did not mean an end to the strong relationship between the UK and New Zealand, but was instead an opportunity for “recalibration in a very favourable context”.
The priority in any trade negotiations would be on protecting the current access for New Zealand exporters based on the country’s preferential access arrangement with the European Union.
The two countries would also discuss New Zealand’s social investment approach, while a “people-to-people dialogue” has been set up to allow collaboration in other areas.
“When you think about how you run all your border security, you run your immigration, you run your health service, all of those sorts of things, those officials will be aware of numerous little glitches that can come up - it’s their job to sort them out and then to present to us what would be an acceptable arrangement, and that’s what we expect.”
Brownlee said any leadership aspirations from Johnson did not come up, although he was able to offer some practical advice on managing the Conservatives’ new relationship with the DUP.
“We were able to point out that the current government in New Zealand has operated as minority partner in coalition arrangements for nine years quite successfully.”