“Absurd“. That’s what MP and former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith thinks about the fact that the trade envoys aiming to strike foreign agreements as the UK exits the European Union counts “people who are viscerally opposed to Brexit” among their ranks. But the real absurdity is that supposedly intelligent politicians should think this way, automatically assuming that being anti-Brexit is accompanied by “talking Britain down.”
If this is the stance that Duncan Smith and his merry brand of Brexiteers are hoping the government will take, then Whitehall better get printing a great deal of P45s. There is no requirement for every civil servant or appointee working on Brexit issues – and there will be thousands of them – to think that exiting the EU is a good idea. In fact, diversity of opinion is a positive asset when it comes to tackling such highly complex challenges. As former diplomat and author of Article 50 himself, John Kerr, wrote in an op-ed about the importance of civil servants who speak their mind, “To dismiss realism as defeatism, and damn dissent as disloyalty, is to court disaster.” Indeed, there’s no point in having a host of civil servants clamouring to say “Yes, Prime Minister”, when it would have been more favourable to Britain to have those with the courage and acumen to say “Actually, no…”
What critics don’t realize is that it’s the Remainer envoys who know better than most that the road to leaving the EU is going to be long and uncertain. That Brexiteers are imagining a bright and prosperous ‘red, white and blue’ future for Britain outside the EU will not automatically make it so; they’ll first have to deal with the tricky matter of negotiating new trade deals with other countries. And there’s no way for Britain to cement its status as a ‘great trading nation’ without the envoy’s expertise in crafting beneficial trading agreements. As many of them have quite rightly pointed out, while Brexit is a priority for Britain, it’s by no means at the top of the global agenda. The envoy for Oman, Lord Astor of Hever, for example, has pointed out that Brexit “hasn’t been mentioned” in his interaction with the country.
It should also be remembered that the trade envoys that Britain deploys across the world are not interchangeable. Each was chosen because of their very specific expertise with certain industries or countries. And it shows in their performance.
The UK’s trade envoy to Bangladesh, Rushanara Ali, who would be one of the envoys for the chop if Duncan Smith got his way, last year secured a £5.7bn deal between a British rail company and the Bangladeshi authorities. Her counterpart in Angola, Baroness Lindsay Northover, has travelled to the country to explore how the UK can support ongoing diversification efforts – which, in turn, would benefit Britain’s trading prospects. Lord Faulkner, the UK’s trade envoy to Taiwan, led 17 UK companies and organizations in the largest railway mission ever to visit the country, hoping to boost already impressive bilateral trade. In 2015, the UK was the number-one investment destination for Taiwan in Europe, with £1.2 billion in total capital investment, representing just over two-thirds of Taiwanese investment into Europe last year.
This comes on top of major missions led by the likes of Theresa May – who we must remember was a soft Remainer not that long ago – and Liam Fox to high-potential markets, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which have already expressed keen interest in a free trade deal with Britain to build on already robust commercial ties. Saudi Arabia, for one, is the sixth fastest growing trade partner with which the UK has a positive trade balance, and is set to expand even further as the country opens up its economy to foreign investment. As part of the drive towards economic diversification, Riyadh is also preparing for the sale of a major stake in state oil giant Saudi Aramco – a prospect that’s attracted keen interest from the London Stock Exchange, which is eager to demonstrate it will continue to be a global financial centre post-Brexit.
Clearly, quibbling about whether trade envoys are pro-Brexit enough misses the point. It is not the private views of trade envoys, but their skills, knowledge, and relationships with the countries in which they operate which will help Britain succeed at Brexit. What’s more, dramatic discomfort about whether trade envoys have the right views is a distracting side show from the real issue here: the government needs to work out what type of transitional deal it is going to take and set the stage for the post-Brexit deals that these envoys have been dedicating so much time and energy to secure. As Conservative MP Anna Soubry has pointed out: “Whether it is membership of the European Economic Area or something a little bit more bespoke, it doesn’t matter, if it conveys the economic benefits to our country and gives business the certainty that it absolutely is crying out for.”
For uncertainty over the shape that Brexit will take is already weighing heavily on the economy. The Bank of England has revised this year’s growth forecast down from 1.7% from its previous forecast of 1.9% in May. The forecast for 2018 has also dropped from 1.7% to 1.6%. Uncertainty is the enemy of economic progress. But one thing the UK can be certain of is that its trade envoys, especially the Remainers, are more aware than anyone of the importance of foreign trade to Britain’s future prosperity. Now is simply not the time to cut them loose.