The prime minister and senior colleagues have fanned out across the world trying to prove that trade deals with illiberal regimes can compensate for a hard Brexit. They are wrong
In order to ensure maximum public impact, British governments have long been in the habit of choreographing their announcements and newsworthy plans within a daily and weekly grid controlled in Downing Street. Last week, that grid was dominated by the triggering of article 50 and the start of the Brexit negotiations. This week, equally clearly, the grid has been shaped to stress that senior ministers are getting out into the world to promote what Theresa May calls “global Britain”.
Mrs May herself has been in Jordan and Saudi Arabia for trade talks. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, arrived in India on Tuesday on a mission to promote the financial sector, while trade minister Liam Fox is on an extended swing through south-east Asia and the Gulf. All these overseas journeys have been coordinated as an attempt to sell Brexiting Britain as a workshop of the world and as a magnet for inward investment.
Like so much else in the Brexit process, the promotion of “global Britain” is still much more of a slogan than a coherent policy. The realities of British trade are that this country’s dominant trading relationships remain those with the EU-27, with other non-EU European countries such as Norway and Switzerland, and with the United States. Everything else is currently very much an also-ran. There is a gulf between the UK’s post-Brexit ideological openness to global trade and the hard practical realities of our true trading relationships.
Any attempt to recast these relationships runs straight into two hard realities. The first is that the trading potential of UK goods and services cannot be quickly recast. Only 1.7% of British exports currently go to India, for example, which is less than our current exports to Sweden, let alone the 44% of UK exports going to the EU as a whole. To change this pattern would be the work of decades, not days.
The second is that any attempt to recast trading relationships soon faces a stark political reality check. That truth is striking this week in the ministerial visits. As we leave Europe, we turn our backs on countries with, for the most part, liberal and democratic values, while simultaneously opening ourselves to those whose values are often neither liberal nor democratic in any way.
This week, Mrs May is trying to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, whose values are autocratic and illiberal at best, where women are treated as second-class, and which the United Nations has accused of committing possible war crimes in Yemen. Mr Fox is, meanwhile, offering our wares to Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and the Gulf states, where similar strictures often apply. The trade secretary’s call on President Duterte means the supposed national interest of post-Brexit Britain has converged with that of a supremely boastful Philippines leader whose self-described war on drugs has killed more than 7,000 of his own people.
Meanwhile Mr Hammond’s visit to India is part of another arm of the post-Brexit trade push, which some here have dubbed “Empire 2.0” and others have extolled as a new “buccaneering Britain.” Such designations are rarely seen in as positive a light in Britain’s former colonial possessions as they are in parts of the Conservative party, or by a Tory press that is trumpeting disrespect for Spain over the issue of Gibraltar.
Elsewhere in the forest on Tuesday, the foreign secretary met his German counterpart to discuss the Brexit that Mrs May triggered last week. Boris Johnson is being kept out of the Brexit limelight by Downing Street, but his exchanges with Sigmar Gabriel were important. The EU talks are the ones that matter most. In contrast to recent suggestions of a hostile mood between Berlin and London, the foreign ministers were optimistic about a deal. Both stressed the need for continued partnership too.
These were only warm words. But they are a reminder that both the UK and European interests point to a soft Brexit, not to a leap into the global trading and moral dark. In a welcome sign of realism, Mrs May now admits that she is unlikely to be able to sign a trade deal with the EU-27 within two years. As the Commons Brexit select committee said this week, too much about Brexit remains unsubstantiated. That goes for Mrs May’s “global Britain” trade deal claims, and for the insouciance with which ministers talk about failure to make a deal with the EU. In both cases, ministers are peddling the politics of fantasy. Friendship, trade and alliances within Europe, in contrast, are facts. They need to be defended and strengthened.