MPs shun Liam Fox, the go-to man for hedonistic inertia | John Crace

Only the lost, the lonely and the overtly masochistic now bother to show up for international trade questions

Liam Fox is a busy man. Busy being busy. Busy flying around the world in the tirelessly altruistic pursuit of putting as much distance between himself and the UK. It works best this way for everyone concerned. He gets to clock up the air miles and stay in luxury five-star hotels. The country is spared any direct contact with its international trade secretary. No harm done.

Departmental questions are normally an opportunity for MPs to find out what has been going on. But as the whole purpose of the international trade department is to do absolutely nothing – Fox would take it as a personal failure, a resignation matter even, were he ever to agree a trade deal – then the question session is a fundamentally pointless exercise. A procedural formality that has to be followed for the sake of parliamentary decorum.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the early days of Theresa May’s government, there was some interest in trade, and the back benches would generally be quite full with MPs eager to find out who we would be trading with post-Brexit. But everyone quickly realised there was a reason why Fox – the go-to man for hedonistic inertia – had been put in a charge, and now international trade questions is one of the more sparsely attended sessions in the Commons calendar. Only the lost, the lonely and the overtly masochistic now bother to show up.

Some questions are now off limits. Some MPs used to enquire about the progress of trade deals just to see if they could embarrass Fox. They have since realised this was a major category error as nothing embarrasses Fox. Failure is his calling card. He is unapologetic for having been sacked for taking his mates on government business. Free the Freebie One.

Nor does anyone enquire how the extension of the Brexit transition period would impact on the UK’s ability to sign trade deals. Mostly because such matters are well above Fox’s pay grade, but also because they know that whether Fox is forbidden or allowed to make deals is an entirely moot point. Nothing will happen either way. So MPs on both sides of the house restrict themselves to points of detail rather than wider government policy.

Labour’s Madeleine Moon began by asking about the effects of US steel tariffs. Fox stifled a yawn. It was all rather complicated, he wasn’t sure he fully understood what was going on and it was all a bit boring anyway. But he was fairly confident it would all turn out OK in the end. And if it didn’t, then it would probably still be okayish. Did he think the US president was someone we could do business with? Absolutely, he replied. His confidence was touching.

After insisting that the main result of Brexit would be for the EU to backslide on its own commitments to workers’ rights and environmental regulations, Fox moved on to his favourite subject. His holidays. He had just been to Johannesburg. The BA flat bed had been stunning and some of the wines had been out of this world. Oh, and he had also fitted in a Jaguar factory but had obviously done nothing hasty like making notes.

From South Africa, we moved on to Australia and New Zealand. He’d had some fantastic trips, and discussions with both countries were ongoing, but he wouldn’t be going back there for a while as it was now their winter and it might be a bit cold and wet.

One of the few countries Fox hadn’t been to was Israel – far too dangerous – but he was certain the UK had been entirely scrupulous in its sale of arms to the Israelis. It had come as a huge surprise that the Israelis had used their weapons and, besides, Britain couldn’t be held responsible for Palestinians deliberately throwing themselves in the way of bullets.

Fox concluded that all was well with both the department and the world. Painstaking research had concluded that foreigners liked the fact that British people spoke English and he was delighted to announce that he had just supervised a change of font on the departmental website. “I’m going to Scotland this afternoon,” he declared. He didn’t seem to know why, though he was sure he would remember when he got there. And the hotel would be to die for.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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