Some might say that Liam Fox has landed his ideal job. As international trade secretary, his mission is to jet around the world doing a bit of meet-and-greet over dinner. Indeed, as no trade deals can be signed before Britain leaves the EU, and only the vaguest expressions of future interest can be made so long as the terms of the divorce remain unknown, the Flying Fox is rather obliged to do the bare minimum. And with lengthy transitional arrangements looking increasingly likely, the minister’s time in office could well develop into an extended sabbatical.
To his credit, the Flying Fox made little effort to imply he was finding his responsibilities in any way onerous in his first departmental questions of the new parliament. He spoke lyrically about how he had met 20 trade ministers in order to deepen relations before doing any actual work, and how he was now flat-out busy preparing for the Commonwealth summit. Choosing the wine, working out the seating plan and ordering the flowers.
Fellow Conservative James Duddridge seemed to find this all very reassuring and wondered if, as well as doing trade deals with individual Commonwealth countries in Africa, it might be possible to do one mega deal with the whole of Africa. The Flying Fox sucked his teeth. He didn’t want to put the mockers on it out of hand, but that would be a lot of work. Best to start with the Commonwealth and take it from there.
After several Labour MPs observed that the government was living in cloud cuckoo land if it thought it could tie up any trade deals in the foreseeable future, the Tory Nigel Evans decided he had had enough of people having their heads filled with fake news. He was fed up with the media being so negative. Brexit was a total triumph and, like Andrea Leadsom, Evans thought it was about time everyone was a bit more patriotic and got behind the government.
The Flying Fox agreed. “It does appear that some elements of our media would rather see Britain fail than Brexit succeed,” he said. “I cannot recall a single time in recent times when I have seen good economic news that the BBC did not describe as ‘despite Brexit’.”
To illustrate this point, the Flying Fox read out some statistics that his department had just published showing that the UK had attracted record levels of foreign direct investment for the year 2016-17. “No doubt the usual suspects will describe this as ‘despite Brexit’,” he sniped.
A few of the more committed Brexiteers murmured their approval, but most of the house just shook their heads in disbelief, amazed that a government minister seemed to have so little grasp of his own data. For what the figures also showed was that the number of new jobs created by foreign direct investment had actually fallen by 9%, while company expansions had fallen by 5% and mergers by 6%. No doubt the usual suspects would describe this as “despite Brexit”.
It was left to Labour’s Barry Sheerman to supply the corrective. “This frontbench team must know that this silly attack on the BBC cannot be used as an excuse for policy,” he said. “This is a secretary of state who has refused to meet the all-party parliamentary manufacturing group. The manufacturers I know have no confidence in him. They think he is is not competent, and they want his resignation.”
The Flying Fox chose to ignore this and sat down in a huff to let his junior minister face the incoming. Mark Garnier gives the impression of being rather better briefed than his boss, but even he didn’t seem to have much idea why no one had been willing to stump up the £1m needed to retain 300 Nestlé jobs in the UK. Presumably because everyone was more interested in giving £1.5bn to the DUP. And it was well above his pay grade to comment on remarks by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, that Britain didn’t seem to understand frictionless free trade was impossible outside the single market and the customs union. He settled for a diplomatic no comment.
There was time for just one more intervention from the Flying Fox. He was proud to be wearing a British-made tie. And if more people wore British ties then Brexit would be an undoubted success. Making Britain Great Again. One tie at a time.