Business as usual spells trouble on trade

The UK will only reap the benefits of taking back control of trade policy if government radically changes the way it operates. 

Published today by the Institute for Government (IfG), Taking Back Control of Trade Policy says that despite the creation of a new trade department, the civil service and ministers are not even close to being ready to negotiate – let alone implement – new global trading relationships.

The paper sets out the how the UK can become a powerful, independent player in international trade.

Authors argue that good trade policy requires civil servants to work across departments, collaborate with business, be open with consumers and the public and spend their careers developing deep knowledge and expertise. But this is not Whitehall’s normal way of doing business.

Ministers will have to make tricky choices about the country’s priorities and recognise there is much more to trade policy than making deals. They should avoid sinking resources into negotiations with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) or the USA, prioritising instead the replication of existing EU deals with Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey and Singapore.

Jill Rutter, Brexit Programme Director at the Institute for Government said:

“Whitehall is not set up to do trade well. Not only does it currently lack the necessary expertise but its standard ways of working – generalist, secretive and unwilling to make difficult trade-offs – are all the enemies of doing trade policy well. Ministers will find that taking back control of trade also means taking back responsibility for some very difficult political choices – and they need to be ready to make and justify them.”

Oliver Ilott, Institute for Government Senior Researcher and report author, said:

“Trade policy is about much more than making deals. There is a real danger that the UK wastes its limited capacity launching trade negotiations with large numbers of countries, and either doing bad deals quickly or getting bogged down in protracted talks going nowhere. The government needs a strategy that targets a few priority countries and explores options that may be better than free trade agreements.”

For more information, please contact Nicole Valentinuzzi on 07850313791.


Notes to editors

  1. The report can be found here or attached. Further copies available upon request.
  2. The Institute for Government (IfG) is an independent think tank working to make government more effective