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Westminster watch: trading places

Graphic to represent trading after Brexit

A post-customs union UK could prove advantageous to the business travel community, says Gareth Morgan

In September the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (Ceta) between the EU and Canada came into force. It was lauded by Liam Fox, the UK’s secretary of state for international trade, as an important deal and it is suggested that 98 per cent of tariffs would be removed, saving EU businesses €0.5 billion a year.

The European Commission, acting on behalf of the members, spent many years engaging with their Canadian counterparts and working on complex discussions on tariff rates, non-tariff barriers, quotas, dispute mechanisms and protected status goods.

After seven years of negotiations, it came down to a final hurdle in the shape of a vote of the European Parliament. That vote saw 408 MEPs signal their approval of the deal and 254 indicate they wanted to reject it. 

In that same period, the UK’s trade focus was more about promotion of British goods. The government body UK Trade & Investment connected UK businesses to export opportunities while the PM’s trade visits usually consisted of taking businesses to India or China and announcing contracts that had been won there.

It was small beer, while the big stuff took place in Brussels.

If Theresa May follows through on her commitment that the UK will withdraw from the customs union, then this will change completely and in doing so will transform the role of Parliament and this industry’s relevance to MPs/peers and ministers.

Consider for a minute the role of an MP once outside the customs union. Exporters, importers and those producing for a domestic market will know that when it comes down to it, MPs will sign off a deal and will have influence throughout the negotiations. These interest groups will be lobbying hard to have a sector opened up/omitted or to ensure that standards aren’t diluted, etc.

In short, trade will become a central focus of MPs in a way it hasn’t been for half a century and with that will come pressure they aren’t used to.

Need for neutral data
This is a huge opportunity for the business travel community. Government and Parliament will be subject to lobbying from various sectors, but will be desperate for neutral data to feed into their decisions.

Who better to provide such data than a sector that is sending business people around the globe? The people who seek export opportunities, who meet prospective clients are being supported by GDS technology and TMC expertise. What would be the standing of this industry if ministers could receive a breakdown of which US sectors are sending people to the UK? Or where UK health technology clients are travelling to in the US?

For the Opposition – seeking to scrutinise negotiations but without the benefit of civil service advice – how would they perceive an industry that can help them understand which sectors are already travelling to the UK and which others need to be stimulated and encouraged?

Consider, too, their decisions about where to locate their trade offices – embassies sit in capitals but that isn’t necessarily where the key commerce spots are. How useful to those decisions would it be to know where UK business people are travelling?

A sector that can deliver this will build up political goodwill, or what we call political capital. The point of that capital is it can be spent on things that matter to this industry – taxation, infrastructure, even, dare I say, encouraging policymakers to take a look at channel distribution issues.

There is a significant opportunity if we can start to cut sales data in a way that is useful for politicians, to take advantage of a post-customs union world, to develop a unique role in trade that will benefit both the UK government and the business travel sector.

Gareth Morgan is a political lobbyist and director with Cavendish Communications. He is an advisor to the GTMC

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