This afternoon’s session of speeches at the Tory conference might best be described as the ‘Why My Department Exists’ section. The ministers who spoke – Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – all reeled off statistics about sport, the countryside, exports and so on to show that their portfolios really matter. Every year, we hear about the countries whose national products we are selling back to them, and how many trees ministers are planting (not personally, sadly). But this year, we had a new job description: that of the Secretary of State for International Trade. And as well as offering ripostes to jokes cracked by Nick Clegg several weeks ago, Liam Fox did need to explain what he was doing.
The funny thing about Fox’s job is that he’s not actually allowed to do it properly until Brexit has actually happened. Perhaps this is why his speech wandered around Britain’s trading history and included another primer of statistics on exports. He admitted that ‘While we remain inside the European Union we are bound by its rules not to negotiate any new trade agreements.’ So what does he actually do? He said Britain could still ‘discuss the impediments that we might wish to eliminate ahead of agreements we might reach with other countries when we leave’ and told the audience that his department had three tasks:
‘First, to promote the export of British goods and services around the world to help create sustained prosperity for all our people; second, to facilitate investment – continuing the phenomenal flow of foreign direct investment into the United Kingdom that has helped produce a sustained and strong economy as well as ensuring that our overseas investments produce future income and help expand and mature the markets that we want to sell into; and thirdly, to generate the trade negotiating capability that we will require as we leave the European Union and take our place as an independent trading nation, championing the cause of free and open trade.’
To be fair to Fox, this is quite a task, and unlike the sombre Philip Hammond this morning, he was very upbeat about the prospects for Britain’s trading future outside the EU. He was an enthusiastic campaigner for Leave, and so is very much part of the Boris Johnson camp of believing that sunlit uplands are close by: indeed, he blasted those ‘who try to portray the referendum as a sign of Britain looking inwards’. So far the main bickering at Tory conference has been between the Brexiteers and Brexit-fearers, but it will be interesting to see whether divisions open up between Brexitsceptics like Philip Hammond and the enthusiastic Brexiteers like Fox.