Government under pressure to fire anti-Brexit Trade Envoys accused of “talking our country down”

Government under pressure to fire anti-Brexit Trade Envoys accused of “talking our country down”

Theresa May is today under pressure to fire a group of Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians charged by Downing Street with promoting UK trade around the world over their continued opposition to Brexit in the year following the EU referendum. One minister has privately raged that some of the UK Trade Envoys are “talking our country down” while former Cabinet Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, is calling for them to be replaced.

Despite being appointed by and acting on behalf of the British Government, several of the cross-party MPs and peers serving as Trade Envoys have consistently defied the Government in key Brexit votes in the House of Commons and House of Lords, indicating continued opposition to the UK’s leaving the EU – a significant plank of which entails taking back control of trade policy.

The programme of Trade Envoys was established by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012 to represent the UK to emerging markets to “support the drive for economic growth by building on the UK’s existing relations with these markets and maximising bilateral trade, thereby generating real and long term benefits for the UK”. International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, said last year that they had “delivered notable results given the resources initially allocated” to them and “have contributed hugely to our recent export gains”.

The twenty parliamentarians listed as serving in the roles on the government website come from across the political spectrum in both Houses of Parliament and include Conservative (13), Labour (3), Lib Dem (2), DUP (1) and Crossbench (1) MPs and peers. While they receive no remuneration (although any expenses they incur are covered by the taxpayer), they are tasked with promoting bilateral trade between the UK and around fifty emerging economies.

One of the oft-cited benefits of Brexit will be the UK Government regaining the ability to strike trade deals and lower tariffs, yet four of the Trade Envoys have voted for a variety of amendments in Parliament designed to prevent the UK’s full withdrawal from the EU or block the process altogether:

  • Labour MP Rushanara Ali voted against the triggering of Article 50 in the Commons and supported the recent amendment to the Queen’s Speech which wanted the Government to “set out proposals to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market” while ruling out withdrawal from the EU without a deal. When voting against the triggering of Article 50, she said the decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union would be “dangerous and devastating to our economy” (Hansard). She remains Trade Envoy to Bangladesh.
  • Lib Dem peer Baroness Northover backed a wrecking amendment to refuse a Third Reading to the Article 50 Bill in the House of Lords since it did not provide for a second referendum on the final deal and voted for an amendment at Committee Stage seeking to make its passing contingent on the UK remaining in the Single Market. She was among those who continued to defy the Government until the bitter end in the House of Lords in backing amendments seeking to make the triggering of Article 50 contingent on a unilateral guarantee of EU citizens’ rights in the UK and forcing Theresa May to secure the approval of both Houses of Parliament before agreeing any Brexit deal with the EU. She has referred to supporters of Brexit as “voices of little England” and said leaving the EU was a “long and dangerous journey” which would continue to damage the British economy (Hansard). She remains Trade Envoy to Angola.
  • Lib Dem peer Baroness Bonham-Carter also backed the wrecking amendment to refuse a Third Reading to the Article 50 Bill in the Lords, as well as the pro-Single Market amendment at Committee Stage, while joining Northover and others in defying the Government on the Bill until the bitter end in the House of Lords. She has been vocal in declaring how membership of the EU is responsible for “enhancing UK culture” and her belief that Brexit will create problems for the creative industries (Hansard). She remains Trade Envoy to Mexico.
  • Labour peer Lord Faulkner of Worcester was one of just 33 Brexit-denying Labour peers who backed the unsuccessful amendment at the Article 50 Bill’s Committee Stage in the Lords seeking to make its passing contingent on the UK remaining in the Single Market. He was also among those who continued to defy the Government in votes on the Bill until the bitter end in the House of Lords. He remains Trade Envoy to Taiwan.

The quartet’s actions have caused consternation both inside and outside government.

One minister told BrexitCentral: “It’s a critical time right now and all those representing the British Government abroad ought to be putting on a united front. It’s breathtaking that some of these envoys are supposedly promoting UK plc abroad while talking down our country at home. These double standards could damage our prospects and I know that others inside the Government feel the same way.”

Former Cabinet Minister and prominent Brexit campaigner, Iain Duncan Smith, called on the Government to replace those envoys who are “viscerally opposed to Brexit”, saying: “It is quite absurd that at the moment the UK leaves the EU and starts to make new free trade deals, we should have as our trade representatives people who are viscerally opposed to Brexit. It is quite unacceptable and high time we appointed new people who believe that what we are doing is positive and full of new opportunity. We should act immediately – we haven’t a moment to lose.”

Invited to defend the continued appointment of the four controversial Envoys, a Government spokesman said: “The Trade Envoy programme is a cross-party network of Parliamentarians from both houses whose role is promoting trade and investment between the UK and overseas markets. The voluntary roles are appointed by the Prime Minister and all Envoys bring a wealth of experience to help support British businesses in growing and succeeding internationally.”

All Trade Envoys named above were invited by BrexitCentral to respond but none has done so.

Additional reporting by David Scullion