Today it was a case of the ghosts of governments past as George Osborne, Michael Heseltine and Vince Cable were hauled before the Commons Business Committee to discuss the UK’s industrial strategy. What followed was a bit of a love-in as Heseltine commended Osborne for his time in the Cabinet – praising Cameron’s government for working on industrial strategy ‘on a bigger scale than any previous government’.
Less popular during the session were the Brexit bunch. Heseltine mocked May’s three Brexiteers – Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis. When asked by Richard Fuller how important it was for Britain to secure free trade agreements, he jokingly replied that he was just thankful for the ‘brilliant’ three ministers now in charge as ‘they can come up with the answers which have escaped me’:
‘We have three ministers now in charge, a brilliant set of appointments in my view because they can come up with the answers which have escaped me. The ability to trade seems to me an important part of our future… and if there are all these markets that have escaped the attention of British exporters, it will be marvellous to have it pointed out to them by the new minister responsible’
While Osborne laughed openly at the comments, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer did at least attempt to be on his best behaviour when asked about a possible trade off between the single market and trade deals. Perhaps boosted by the Times‘s leaked Treasury report today warning of a £66bn cost of hard Brexit- which no doubt brought back fond memories of his own punishment budget – Osborne was keen to re-iterate Philip Hammond’s words that ‘the country didn’t vote to make itself poorer’. He said that it was important for Britain to have ‘the closest possible relationship with a place that 40 per cent of our exports go’. While he insisted that shouldn’t necessarily lead to the exclusion of deals with other parts of the world, it was clear which he thought ought to be a priority:
‘I mean it’s no good increasing your trade with Australia, if your trade with Germany, France and Belgium suffers as a result. You can’t escape the fact we’re going to be doing a lot of trade with our close neighbours.’
While Osborne refrained from explicitly saying the customs union and single market ought to be the main priority, he did point out that he was ‘here in the House of Commons’ to make himself heard. Should May continue her plans for a hard Brexit, expect his voice to become louder on the issue.