Outspoken foreign secretary Boris Johnson last night warned it could take years for Britain to seal the trade deals necessary to thrive post-Brexit, in comments that put him at odds with Cabinet colleague Liam Fox.
Speaking at a Conservative party conference fringe event, Johnson said trade deals with countries outside the EU “will come at a steady pace – they won’t be necessarily there, signed, sealed and delivered by the next election”.
Earlier this week, at the start of the conference, trade secretary Liam Fox insisted a string of deals would be ready and waiting the minute a Brexit transition period ends – currently estimated to fall in March 2021.
“We’ll expect to have draft agreements long before that with a number of countries,” Fox said.
However, Johnson’s caution was echoed by business minister Margot James yesterday. Quoted in the Guardian newspaper, James said: “There is a little bit of an over-optimistic attitude about the extent of trade we can summon up with Commonwealth countries. There are 51 of them. We export more to Germany [than] we do to the entire Commonwealth, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”
She added: “We export seven times as much to Germany as we do to India.”
Johnson said last night that “loads” of deals would be done by the next election, but said larger agreements would take longer. “I just don’t want you to run away with the idea that you know that they’re going to be easy or that they are all going to slot into place very, very fast,” he said.
Earlier in the day Johnson tried to play down rumours of a leadership bid, telling party activists that the Cabinet was united behind embattled Prime Minister Theresa May and backed “every syllable” of May’s speech on Brexit in Florence last month.
Johnson piled praise on his boss, hailing “her steadfastness in taking Britain forward” and celebrating June’s General Election “win” – despite the party losing its parliamentary majority and being forced into a deal with Northern Irish party the DUP.
The PM will today pledge to battle on in her role, during a flagship speech marking the end of the conference.
“It has never been my style to hide from a challenge, to shrink from a task, to retreat in the face of difficulty, to give up and turn away,” May is expected to say. “It is when tested the most that we reach deep within ourselves and find that our capacity to rise to the challenge before us may well be limitless.”
She will tell party members not to be distracted with questions about “our job security”, but that of Britain’s “ordinary working people”. The party must focus on “doing everything we can to ensure their tomorrow will be better than our today,” she will say, in a thinly-veiled warning to colleagues plotting her downfall. She will tell delegates she is focused on making the UK “stronger, fairer and more prosperous”, saying she will not be put off by “obstacles and barriers along the way”.
Meanwhile yesterday, diminutive international development minister Priti Patel did little to play down her leadership ambitions, opening her session by telling Tory members: “Thank you for the step up. Some of our most successful leaders have of course been the smallest.”