Recently returning from the US, Liam Fox see the difficulties of his new role. He is the first dedicated British trade minister at Cabinet level since Lord Cockfield in 1983. He has to build Britain’s international trade profile and create a proper Whitehall department to implement it. Yet in key areas he has no powers to do anything and will not have them until Britain leaves the EU.

He can’t negotiate in the World Trade Organisation. He can’t sign trade deals. And the biggest trade relationship, with the EU, will presumably be negotiated by David Davis in the Brexit ministry. In short, he has a virtual role but not yet a real one. 

Does this mean there’s nothing he can do? Certainly not. There’s lots he can – and must – get on with.

First, he can simply mark a presence in the world. Britain’s trade ministers have tended to be inhibited by the extent of EU powers. Indeed, it is with great reluctance that the Commission has allowed us to speak on trade at all, even in bodies like the G8 or G20 where Britain is a full member. Dr Fox is showing by his actions that this era is over. This week’s decision to open three new offices in the US is a clear signal of intent. It has to be right that, now we are negotiating Brexit, ministers speak on trade on our own behalf and begin the informal discussions that will lead to trade deals after Brexit.

Second, think hard about the priorities. Britain won’t be able to do everything at once. Luckily Dr Fox is a thoughtful geopolitical student and has written extensively on foreign policy. Trade is part of that and trade deals have strategic consequences. 

One early choice will be whether to focus on fairly easy deals with our friends and the global free traders – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Mexico – or the more difficult ones with the emerging markets, notably India, Brazil, China, and south-east Asia. The first could get some deals under the wire quickly. The second will take longer but could make more difference. We must, of course, talk to the US, as Dr Fox has been doing, and we could even get the best of both by pressing to join the biggest recent global deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership between the US and free traders around the Pacific Rim. 

Third, before long he should state the principles for future trade policy, based on our free-trading history. He should make clear that, although we will have to inherit the EU’s trading rules at the WTO in the short run, we intend rapidly to reduce as many as possible of these tariffs and quotas to zero. That would be a powerful statement of confidence in Britain’s openness to the world and ability to sustain ourselves as a global trader. 

Some argue that this will stop us getting good trade deals. Why should other countries get rid of their tariffs if we have already scrapped ours? I don’t buy this argument.  Tariffs tend to be the easy bit of free-trade agreements. What makes the difference is agreement on regulations and product standards, services, and investment. By moving on tariffs we can focus on the things that really matter.

Finally, build the new department. There are two patterns we could follow. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade has staff who expect to spend their career there. They have incredible expertise and esprit de corps. In contrast, the Office of the US Trade Representative has a smaller permanent cadre, with more movements between the rest of government and the private sector. 

We should try for the best of both. We will need core expertise, but should use plenty of outsiders to keep up connections with the world of business. This could be a new model department for Whitehall, setting a path that others could follow. 

These are just the highlights. There is much more. Negotiating transitional arrangements for the EU’s free-trade agreements, integrating UKTI into the new department, and building new consultative relationships with business and devolved governments are just some of the things to be getting on with. So Dr Fox may be a virtual minister in that he can’t sign trade deals yet. But he is a very real and important one in giving Britain back sovereign trade powers. Getting this right will be central to Britain’s economic success in the years to come. 

David Frost is a former ambassador and trade negotiator Source: