Trading Up and Out: Seeing challenge as opportunity

Securing the right trade deal for the UK after Brexit will require wide and deep engagement across business and society. So how can government separate the substance from the noise and deliver what’s best for the UK? This week, I hosted an expert panel event to discuss these important issues, bringing together a group of over a hundred Whitehall officials, policy-makers and trade experts.

It was clear from the discussion that the UK has an enormous challenge ahead of it, not least because of the tight two year window we have for exit negotiations. But what struck me the most was not the challenges and difficulties, considerable though they are, but the opportunities that striking new trade deals can offer us, if we can secure a good deal with the EU and take a strategic and ambitious approach on the global stage.

At the event, we approached the discussion through four lenses with expert speakers on Whitehall and the Civil Service, the role and processes of Parliament, our relationship with the EU and other countries’ experiences of international trade negotiations.

We were very fortunate to welcome Lord O’Donnell, Former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service as chair. For him, strategy is at the heart of how Whitehall should approach trade negotiations. Government will need to bring the industrial, economic and trade strategies together and understand what type of Britain they want to create.

I see this as a real opportunity. If the Civil Service can get this right and really understand the priorities of industry, business and civil society, not only will we get our trade negotiations right, we will build a more inclusive and fairer economy that works for everyone.

Dr Hannah White, Director of Research at the Institute for Government with a long background in Parliament and the Civil Service, saw the role of parliament in three distinct areas – legislation, debate and scrutiny.

It’s the final two of these which I find most exciting. We are already seeing strong and powerful Select Committees forming for the new Brexit and trade departments. And the quality and profile of the Members who have been elected onto those committees show that they will become powerful tools of Parliamentary scrutiny. But it is also good for democracy. I believe that this process gives our representatives an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of debate that can take place in both Houses.

Professor L Alan Winters is a leading academic on trade and Brexit analyst in his role as Director of the Trade Policy Observatory.  He sees a real challenge in maintaining the political relationship we need with the 27 EU nations to secure a deep and comprehensive trading relationship that works for everyone. It will be essential that the UK agrees its own schedules in the WTO and an interim arrangement to cover any gap between Brexit and a new EU-UK trade deal. 

But like Lord O’Donnell, he also sees a real opportunity for the UK to reassess how its economy functions and the interface between industrial and trade policy. This could have a really positive effect on our labour markets, as we encourage sectors to thrive, generating the jobs and productivity we need to prosper post-Brexit.

Finally, Sir Lockwood Smith, a Diplomat and former New Zealand Minister for Trade reminded us of the success other economies have had in boosting their economy through trade deals and the ability to lower tariffs. The success over the last thirty years of the New Zealand wine industry is a testament to this. Cutting the import tariff helped propel the product to one of the country’s most important export industries.

Overall, he emphasised the importance of a strategic approach to trade negotiations.  He agreed with Alan on the priority of securing WTO and EU relationships in the first place.  In international negotiations it would be important to the get the right deal, not a quick deal. 

For many of us, 23rd June will live in our memories as a day that changed the country. There was a real sense of history; we all knew we were living through one of those important moments that will have genuine impact on our lives. And now that the dust has settled its time to look at and focus on the opportunities that Brexit could have on our economy. If Government, industry and civil society can collaborate and successfully work together, then this is a real opportunity to create an economy that we can all prosper from.


Tina Hallett | Government and Public Sector Lead Partner
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