LONDON — Britain’s former business and trade minister said the government is “completely unprepared and completely ill-equipped” to strike trade deals once Britain leaves the EU.
Sir Vince Cable, who was Secretary of State for Business from 2010 and 2015, told Business Insider: “These things are very complex and very difficult and the government is totally unprepared for it.”
Once Britain officially leaves the EU, likely sometime in 2019, it will have to strike new trade deals with nations around the world and the EU itself. The government has earmarked countries like Australia and India as possible key future trading partners.
However, most trade policies were set by Britain in Brussels while it was an EU member. This has left Whitehall understaffed and inexperienced for the difficult and complex negotiations ahead. Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, highlighted this problem in his resignation letter last month, writing that: “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.”
Sir Vince highlighted Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to India as an example of the government’s lack of preparedness for trade talks. India’s Prime Minister Modi asked May for more visas for Indians looking to come to the UK, despite the fact that May has made clear that controlling immigration will be a red line in Brexit negotiations and beyond.
Sir Vince told BI: “When Theresa May rushed off to India and was basically told to take a running jump — they just hadn’t thought through the practicalities of negotiating a trade agreement with India which produced mutual benefit.”
He said: “We’re in a very weak bargaining position. When you’re in a group of 500 million people, you’ve got a certain amount of clout in negotiations. The problem that the British have is that for political reasons they have to produce agreements quickly — that is something you can do when you don’t have 28 governments, you only have one, you can move quicker — but are negotiating position, particularly when dealing with China and the United States, is much, much weaker. They will say here it is, this is what we want, take it or leave it.”
Sir Vince, a Liberal Democrat, held responsibility for trade in his ministerial position in the coalition government. An economist by trade, he has also written books on the topic, was an advisor to the Callaghan government during the Tokyo round of international trade negotiations in the 1970s, worked as head of economics at international affairs think tank Chatham House during the Uruguay round of negotiations in the late 1980s, and served as oil company Shell’s chief economist from 1995 to 1997.
The former MP for Twickenham, who lost his seat as an MP in the 2015 election, also recently became a strategic advisor to the World Trade Board, a private sector group founded by finance software company Misys to promote international trade and cooperation among businesses.
Sir Vince is by no means the only person to voice alarm about the UK’s position heading into trade negotiations. Former cabinet minister Oliver Letwin last summer said that all British trade negotiators are “basically working for the EU,” a point raised by Sir Vince, and David Archer, director of executive recruitment company Circle Square, told the Times last October: “There’s a general consensus amongst negotiators that the UK government is in a state of disarray.” Last month Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg also warned that Britain’s lack of negotiating experience may lead to “very hard Brexit.”