THE PRIME MINISTER’S FIRST CABINET RESHUFFLE pulled off a political masterstroke when she made ‘the three Brexiteers’ – Johnson, Davis and Fox – responsible for some of the toughest tasks post-referendum.
On a political level it was a small piece of genius. If they were on the backbenches or in peripheral departments then they’d cause trouble and provide a running commentary on Brexit. Give them the big jobs, two of which were bespoke, and it’ll shut them up. Bearing in mind Boris’s squirming during his first press conference with the then US Secretary of State it may have also killed off any lingering leadership ambitions.
Of them all it is Fox, leading the new Department of International Trade, who has been quietest, but it is relevant for the business travel industry to know what he’s up to, and what he’s interested in.
It is useful also to consider how trade has gone up the political agenda. In the Cameron/Osborne era, increasing exports was a manifesto commitment, but it was focused on UKTI, tucked away in the Department for Business, and headed by a mid-tier minister who would spend his time on foreign trips. Cameron himself led trade missions to places like India, but scratch beneath the surface and there was a fair bit of fluff involved. In a short time, though, trade now has its own department.
It is, however, hamstrung slightly by the fact that until the UK leaves the EU customs union it cannot actually negotiate any trade deals. So, what are they doing then?
They are promoting trade and opportunities – in the way UKTI did, they are trying to alert UK businesses to opportunities around the world. They are looking to put this online and act as a conduit that UK exporters take advantage of.
They are trying to reconfigure UK government apparatus – the UK’s embassies around the world reflect capital cities rather than being well positioned in trade hot spots. This is being gradually solved by opening offices in key trade locations such as San Diego and Raleigh-Durham. This should continue.
They are holding ‘scoping discussions’ – while the UK cannot start formal negotiations there is nothing to stop softer talks from beginning. In these, the UK and potential partners are discussing the sectors that they may wish to accelerate once formal discussions can begin. There is an awareness that fully fledged free trade agreements take a long time to put into place so they want to figure out what can be achieved faster.
Perhaps, most importantly, Fox is racking up the air miles. He has been to the Middle East, Hong Kong and the US – and it is with the latter that he has a potentially crucial role. He is a huge Americophile and has in his periods away from the front bench been involved with organisations such as the Atlantic Bridge that focused on building links between the Conservative and Republican parties. He has a large network of contacts across Capitol Hill and will be at the heart of efforts to get a trade deal with the US.
For the business travel community this is a big opportunity. Its work is integral to an agenda that will grow in importance in the next few years and which is headed by someone who’s wholly committed to fostering trade and the necessary policies in infrastructure, transport and tax that will support that. In short, business travel has a big beast that instinctively gets its agenda and needs to take advantage.