Free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with India are no longer working towards a Diwali deadline, United Kingdom Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch has confirmed, even as reports emerged that the deal is on the verge of collapse over Indian-origin Hime Secretary Suella Braverman's controversial visa overstayers' comments.
During a visit to a Scotch whisky distillery Badenoch, the Cabinet minister in charge of the FTA negotiations at the Department for International Trade (DIT), said the deal being lined up with India would bring great wins for the industry as the steep tariffs of up to 150 per cent are set to be slashed.
However, while the negotiations are progressing well, signing a draft agreement by October 24 is no longer the goal.
"We are close. We're still working on a deal. One of the things that has changed is that we are no longer working to the Diwali deadline," Badenoch said.
"We've closed a lot of chapters (the sections for the negotiating text). The negotiations are progressing well. But we want to focus on the quality of the deal rather than the speed of the deal. Given the changes that have taken place – not just in government but the mourning period (for the Queen) and so on, it makes sense for us to focus on the deal rather than the day," she said.
The Diwali timeline had been announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his India visit in April and it was widely expected that it would prove a tight deadline given the political upheaval that followed in the UK.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman's recent comments raising concerns over the prospect of visa concessions for India as part of an FTA were also seen as throwing the talks off-track.
Last week, the Indian-origin Home Secretary said in an interview that she feared a trade deal with India would increase migration to the UK when Indians already represented the largest group of visa overstayers.
Asked about visa flexibility for students and entrepreneurs under an India-UK FTA, she said: "But I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country - the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants."
"We even reached an agreement with the Indian government last year to encourage and facilitate better cooperation in this regard. It has not necessarily worked very well." Braverman was referencing the Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) clinched between her predecessor in the Home Office, Indian-origin former Home Secretary Priti Patel, and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in May last year.
The Indian High Commission in London responded by pointing out that action had been initiated on all cases referred to it under the MMP.
General opinion among political pundits is that Braverman is on a collision course with British Prime Minister Liz Truss, who is reportedly keen to clinch the FTA. A report in 'Politico' also claimed that any plans of a UK visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Diwali to sign off on an FTA is also now not likely to go ahead.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) reiterated the UK stance that it would not sacrifice quality for speed.
"As we line up deals with huge markets around the globe, including India and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), I can't wait to celebrate the even greater wins which lie ahead," said Badenoch, during her visit to the Glenkinchie Distillery in Scotland.