UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says NZ at or near top of free trade negotiation list; Says no one can be worse off when asked about stance of Welsh sheep farmers; Also on NZers' access to UK, Brexit & Tory leadership

New Zealand is “at or near to” the top of the list for the United Kingdom to negotiate free trade deals with after it leaves the European Union within the next two years, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says.

And the same old argument over free access for New Zealand agricultural products to whichever country we sign an FTA with already look set to be front-and-centre of negotiations.

Taking questions from local media while in Wellington Tuesday, Johnson was asked how free trade talks with New Zealand would likely be viewed by Welsh sheep farmers? The competition between New Zealand and Welsh lamb in UK supermarkets is already legendary, with the British Sheep Association notching up a win earlier this year as it lobbied a key chain there to stop selling our stuff.

While the UK already received quite a lot of New Zealand lamb and other products, Johnson said that a deal could not see any party coming out of the negotiations with a less dominant position.

“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 said.

The next question related to concerns that New Zealanders’ current work access to the UK could be curtailed in a less-immigrant friendly Britain, as referenced by the Brexit vote. But Johnson sought to ease concerns, even saying Kiwis would not face greater work restrictions.

He referenced his previous role as Mayor of London, a city, he said, that was a bit like Auckland in some respects – about 40% of residents in each city were born abroad. Auckland, like London, appeared incredibly open to attracting talent.

“I think being open to talent is a great thing. But in any society, you’ve got to manage it. And you’ve got to control it. And people have got a democratic right to feel that their government is in charge of the situation,” Johnson said.

“And that’s a bit what the whole Brexit thing was about. It wasn’t that people were hostile to immigrants, they weren’t hostile to people with talents and energy coming to the UK; they just wanted to feel that the British government had a handle on it.

“That’s what we’re going to do. And that does not mean that we are in any way going to make life…more difficult for New Zealanders. On the contrary, we massively value, we love Kiwis coming to our country. And it makes a huge difference to our economy that we have people with talent and ambition that want to come. Even if it’s only for a short time, and then go back again,” he said.

“So, on the ancestry visas and the overseas experience, and stuff like that, no, we will want to maintain a regime that is at least as attractive as the current regime. And we will want to maintain a policy of openness and engagement.

“If I can just make thing absolutely clear – I say this until I’m blue in the face – Brexit is not, was not, will not be about Britain turning away from the world. On the contrary, it is about us wanting to, of course, to keep great relations with our European friends and partners and to do a great free trade deal with them. But it is also about rediscovering and intensifying friendships and partnerships around the world. In trying to do that, we see New Zealand as at or near the front of the queue.”

The next two questions regarded internal European and UK politics. But they could have an effect on the timeframe it takes for the UK to turn to New Zealand to sign any free trade deal. Could political infighting at the top of the ruling Conservative Party delay a Brexit deal?

Johnson feigned ignorance of any talk of infighting in his party. “I’ve been travelling in Japan, and now in beautiful New Zealand, and any such activity’s completely passed me by. Nor am I aware – no one has sent me any news of any such infighting,” he said.

“What you have is a government that is determined…Let’s be clear: the election did not evolve entirely in the way that the government had hoped or would have wanted. I’m going to put that out there. But, the Labour Party did not win. They’re 56 seats behind, we have a workable system of getting stuff through the House of Commons. We have 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. Our friends and partners around the world can be confident that we’re going to get these things done, and done in style.”

The final question rolled on from there. Would he rule out a shot at the Conservative Party leadership? Johnson reverted to his usual bluster to try and get around not answering the question front-on.

“What the British people want to see is a government that gets on with the job. They’ve got that, with Teresa, and we are going to deliver a great Brexit deal; a deal that works for our European friends, for the UK, but also of course, works for New Zealand,” he said.

Is that ruling out a challenge?

“Look, what the British people want to see is us getting on with the job. They see no vacancy, nor do they see any need for any more political kerfuffle.”