Trade secretary Liam Fox has faced a fallout from some sloppy rhetoric. But he makes a very valid point about exporting

Christian May
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Defence Secretary Liam Fox Facing Inquiry Into Ministerial Conduct
International trade secretary Liam Fox blasted UK firms for being "too lazy and fat" over the weekend (Source: Getty)

Things haven't been going smoothly for the newly appointed secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox.

First, he became embroiled in an unseemly row with the foreign secretary about who stood where in the Whitehall pecking order. Then he got overexcited about the potential for a free-trade deal with Australia, only for our antipodean friends to point out that nothing will happen overnight.

Now he's drawn a stinging rebuke from business leaders after his undiplomatic comments about some of them being “too lazy and too fat” to rise to the challenge of exporting.

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent drinks (and high-profile Remain campaigner) has called Fox “a complete fraud”. Political opponents have also shifted into full-blown outrage mode, with Chuka Umunna describing Fox's comments as “a complete disgrace.”

Read more: Australian trade minister hits the brakes on quick-fire trade deal

But amid the fallout from some sloppy rhetoric, a serious point is at risk of being overlooked: Fox was right. He was right to highlight that just 11 per cent of businesses export; he was right to warn against protectionism and to bang the drum for free-trade; and he was right to balance a long-standing desire for attracting inward investment with a new commitment to promoting British investment overseas.

In timely fashion, LinkedIn has today released data based on an analysis of international prospecting by British firms on the platform, showing that British businesses are much more likely than EU rivals to have their sights set on a domestic market over international ones. Just 31 per cent of sales prospecting activity was focused internationally, compared to 68 per cent among businesses in Ireland and 62 per cent for the Germans. Indeed, by LinkedIn's figures, the UK ranks 23 out of 28 EU countries for international prospecting.

Read more: What now? The UK and the EU Single Market

There are many reasons why the UK lags behind other countries when it comes to exporting, and a desire to play golf rather than clinch that overseas deal is not likely to be among them, regardless of what Fox says. Nevertheless, leaving aside the trade secretary's self-inflicted wounds, his desire to see British businesses at the leading edge of a new, post-Brexit approach to trade is entirely reasonable. His task now is to help the country's businesses to help themselves.

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