Expert View

Liam Fox must know PM’s Brexit deal puts him out of a job

by David Hannay | 30.11.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

It is always a bit sobering when revolutions begin to devour their children, as they have a tendency to do. But that was what Liam Fox was compelled to do on the Today programme this morning as he explained why he was sticking with the prime minister’s Brexit deal – even though it left him with little to do for the foreseeable future except clock up air miles.

Back in the distant past, immediately after the 2016 referendum, Fox was assuring anyone who was willing to listen that he would have already negotiated trade agreements with non-EU “third countries” by now. It was all quite easy, he claimed.

Well, the score of new trade agreements negotiated to date is zero. And even the task of rolling over all the EU’s current trade agreements so that UK exporters will continue to benefit from them, as they do now, if we cease to be an EU member in March 2019, is way behind schedule. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Fox sent one of his junior ministers along to Parliament to admit that his department was falling short of fulfilling even the simplest of its tasks.

Much is being made by the government of the fact that the prime minister’s deal permits the UK to negotiate and ratify new trade agreements with third countries during the transitional period. Although we won’t be able to bring them into force so long as we remain in a customs union with the EU. How long will that be? Nobody knows. But, if the transitional period is prolonged in 2020 or if the backstop kicks in, the answer is a long time.

Moreover the first question any third country will ask of Liam Fox when he turns up on their doorstep hoping to negotiate a deal will be: “And what are the provisions of your new long-term trade relationship with the EU?” There is not going to be an answer to that question for some time either. So the trade secretary is likely to be sent away to cool his heels.

How about trying to negotiate trade deals on services? These make up 80% of our economy and a substantial portion of our exports, and won’t be caught in the customs union trap. It’s a good idea in principle. But we run a surplus on our trade in services with most third countries, including the US, so we will be very much the demandeurs. What’s more, we will have nothing to offer on trade in goods which is what those third countries will be looking for (you know, chlorinated chicken or low-cost beef and lamb) because all that trade will be firmly held in the customs union trap of May’s deal.

All this would matter less if it was not for the fact that the right to negotiate our own trade deals was a jewel in the crown of the Leave campaign and continues, rather unconvincingly, to figure prominently in the sales pitch for the prime minister’s deal. In reality we are currently benefiting from the expansion of the EU’s trade agreements with third countries: in South Korea, where our exports have bounded ahead following the entry into force of the EU/Korea deal; agreement and with Japan, concluded but yet to enter into force; and deals with Australia, New Zealand and perhaps Mercosur still in the pipeline. Why throw all that away and start over again, you might well ask?

Altogether, it’s not much of a sales pitch. Even before Donald Trump dropped an icy shower on hopes for an UK/US trade agreement this week.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

Tags: , , Categories: Economy

7 Responses to “Liam Fox must know PM’s Brexit deal puts him out of a job”

  • It is certainly high time this dubious character was put out of a job. He hasn’t achieved anything in his present “manufactured” position. If there had been any justice he should have been put before the Courts for Misconduct in a Public Office, for his shenanigans with Adam Werritty, which would have disqualified him from any public office.

  • You can see that Liam Fox’s portfolio stands to be drastically cut back either by May’s
    proposal and of course if we stayed in the EU. To be charitable to Brexiteers, his enhanced Trade Minister role would be a genuine, if rare, example of ‘taking back control’, except it would be a false control. Given the size and importance of the European market compared to the UK’s, why should Liam Fox be able to negotiate better terms? Its rather like expecting the corner shop to undercut the supermarkets.
    Neither does his judgement that the Brexit negotiation would be ‘the easiest in human history’, inspire alot of confidence in his ability for the tasks ahead.


  • It was interesting to hear Fox emphasising the importance of the fact that 44% of our exports go to the EU – as though he had just woken up to that fact. I have heard from two separate sources within the Civil Service that Fox has come to think that Brexit is not such a good idea after all. If so, he should have the honesty and courage to say so.

  • Indeed. Perhaps he’s actually learnt something — that the job he supposed he could do in short order cannot in fact be done by anyone.

  • Honesty and courage? Although a multilingual Conference Interpreter with 40 years’ experience, I can’t honestly find the exact translation today when Tories are expounding their ideas. It’s not just ‘language change’, but ‘morality drift’.

  • He could apply to the NHS if his qualifications have not expired (was he really a doctor of medicine?). Or start up some sort of face lifting clinic or face saving clinic for his colleges or setup a snake oil distribution centre. His options are limited only by one’s imagination.