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Why Liam Fox’s buccaneering Brexit is running aground

The minister’s promised trade agreements have mostly not materialised, and MPs are keen to rein him in before he caves to ‘America First’ interests.

Catherine West
4 April 2019
The Royal Yacht Britannia - decommissioned but ministers now want a new one
The Royal Yacht Britannia - decommissioned but ministers now want a new one
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Rebecca Naden/PA Images

Over the past 18 months, I have scrutinised the work of the Department for International Trade, and on several occasions had the opportunity to grill its lead Minister: Dr Liam Fox. From insisting on the need for full parliamentary oversight of future trade deals to ensuring that public services like the NHS are not threatened by such deals –our committee’s work has been focussed promoting trade policy that is grounded in fairness and ethics as well as recognising our vital relationship with the EU- a relationship incidentally I want to preserve and protect.

As an EU member, the UK is automatically included within over forty trade deals with more than seventy countries. Should the UK crash out without a deal, these trade agreements would fall away immediately –a fact that scores of parliamentarians continue to remind the Prime Minister at every opportunity.

Now, with only 200 hours left until the UK could - still - crash out of the EU with no-deal, we are faced with yet another reality of this Government: the woeful lack of significant trade agreements confirmed. Yet Mr Fox has a vision of post-Brexit Britain as a buccaneering, free-trading explorer, travelling far and wide to sign hundreds of new trade agreements, ideally on a new Royal Yacht Britannia.

At the heart of this vision is rapid, new trade deals. Fox once promised that “a second after” Brexit (which, at the time, was scheduled for last Friday), the UK would have 40 free trade deals signed and ready to implement. Fox also said that negotiating the UK’s free trade agreement with the EU would be the "easiest in human history."

By contrast, of the 40 deals which Fox was supposed to roll-over by this week, only a handful have been signed, with some of the larger trading partners missing - such as Canada and Japan. And even the few that are signed have been accused of being ‘incomplete’ by trade experts, such as the deal with Switzerland, such that companies cannot guarantee continued trade in a no deal scenario.

Fox’s grand plan for Brexit therefore faces a number of problems. First, there is little evidence that the public want Fox’s deals. Free trade agreements require give and take, which means that the UK (starting from a weak negotiating position) would be under pressure to lower its food, health and environmental standards to win trade with new partners, such as the US. Indeed, the US has made this position very clear in a public statement of its objectives. Research from the IPPR shows that the British public are not willing to swap our high standards for more trade with the US.

Second, Fox may find himself caught up in a battle between Parliament and the Government. Throughout the Brexit process, MPs have been unhappy with how little say they have had over the UK’s negotiating position, and have insisted on a meaningful vote on May’s deal. However, as things stand, MPs get almost no say on the UK’s free trade deals. Given the likely controversy around new deals, especially with the US, Parliament will undoubtedly push for the power to scrutinise, amend and even block trade deals. Indeed, this is something MPs have pushed for in the Trade Bill, backed by various Parliamentary committees.

Third, globally, the state of major trade negotiations are in flux. With the EU and the US accusing China of bending trade rules, Trump’s ‘America First’ protectionism and civil society backlash against ‘new generation’ deals such as TTIP (an EU-US agreement) and CETA (EU-Canada), the climate for such negotiations is, to put it mildly, challenging.

Fox’s ambitious dreams for a post-Brexit Britain appear to originate from misplaced nostalgia rather than grounded in the reality of the UK’s trading relationships. His record on negotiating trade agreements, the level of backlash from both civil society and MPs, as well as the hard realities of the global trading environment, means that Fox very much remains a lone wolf.

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