James Frayne: The toughest job in the cabinet has fallen to Liam Fox
The leading Brexiteer finds himself walking into an intellectual and policy wasteland.
We can argue about who has the biggest job in Cabinet. Maybe Philip Hammond at the Treasury. Maybe David Davis at the Brexit Department or Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.
But the question of who has the most difficult job is surely easier to answer: Liam Fox, secretary of state for the newly-created Department for International Trade.
While Davis is the man responsible for getting us out, Fox is the man responsible for making a new global role viable.
Fox finds himself walking into an intellectual and policy wasteland. Simply put, in the area of global trade we’re starting from scratch. Having been in the EU for 40 years, we haven’t had an independent trade policy to worry about and we no longer have the skills or the experience required in this area.
Yesterday’s Financial Times quoted a Parliamentary report suggesting that Britain has maybe 20 people with direct knowledge of trade negotiations, compared to 830 in the Canadian Government.
Constructing trade agreements with the rest of the world can’t rely on goodwill between friendly countries. This is a start, of course, but trade deals go into minute, technical details because they are contractual agreements between countries. Negotiating them are logistically complex operations.
Furthermore, trade deals are always outrageously controversial within countries as specific industries worry how they’ll be affected. Many of these industries carry political and financial weight, which can’t be discounted. We’re going to need this new trade department – helped by Foreign Office advisers on the ground – to be alive to the domestic politics of those countries we’re negotiating with.
How did we find ourselves in this position? It’s a long story. Over the last twenty years or so, British eurosceptics have been highly skilled at forming “No” campaigns against further integration. Business for Sterling mobilised vast numbers of businesspeople against the single currency, neutralising the Government’s economic case for the euro, and Vote 2004, which gradually evolved into Open Europe, ultimately led the charge against the EU Constitution. UKIP’s rise post-2004 has made many politicians nervous about seeming too pro-EU for fear of losing core supporters.
From the viewpoint of eurosceptics, a negative focus was needed because of specific challenges thrown at them by those in power. But this negative focus – essentially, just stopping things happening – meant that eurosceptics never spent real time or money developing a serious positive vision for Britain outside the EU. And so Britain finds itself outside the EU on the basis of a competent communications operation - working off large-scale public concern about the prospect of continued membership - but without significant intellectual policy work on which to draw on.
Over the last two decades, various concepts have been thrown up. For example, some favour a relationship along the same lines that Norway enjoys with the EU. Others favour the model set out most credibly by American foreign policy expert John Hulsman, who advocates an ambitious global free trade area with a security element – effectively tying the world’s liberal democracies together, with Britain playing a significant new role within this new structure.
These concepts can play the role of useful guiding lights to Theresa May’s new Government, should they wish to use them. But they remain concepts at this stage – ready to be built into more formal policy proposals. In the past, this lack of a positive vision was a problem primarily for eurosceptics, in that it limited their ability to take the initiative and left them endlessly on the back foot. But this problem has become the Government’s problem.
Just as we find ourselves with no trade policy, so it is in other areas too. For example, we haven’t had to consider our immigration policy in the way we now must. Having relied on the EU for an easy, steady stream of highly qualified, English-speaking workers, Britain now has to decide which workers it wants and needs - and how many of them and on what terms. It is not clear at this point where such decisions sit. Currently, immigration sits primarily within the Home Office, but there is a case that the new trade department takes more of this role on as we consider how to attract the world’s best workers to a Britain outside the EU. If we do go down the “Australian points” route, immigration will increasingly be discussed through the framework of economics and trade.
The Government will pick these challenges up. It has no choice. But Britain’s think tanks, policy research centres and trade associations now need to prioritise the challenges thrown up by Brexit. We urgently need very detailed policy ideas for how we are going to construct a prosperous and secure future outside the EU. The challenge for those that have self-defined as eurosceptic in the last two decades have a particular responsibility now.
Their hour has come and they need to lead the charge on setting out a national strategy and a credible plan on how we make that strategy work.
Liam Fox needs all the help he can get.
James Frayne is director of public opinion specialists Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation. He was previously director of policy & strategy at Policy Exchange.
Picture by: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images