Kemi Badenoch has been criticised by business groups for trying to “shift the blame” after she told British businesses that international trade “isn’t too tough”.
The business and international trade secretary said today that the UK has “too many negative tropes about how difficult it all is”.
Speaking at the launch of the first e-commerce trade commission, Badenoch said: “We need a change in perception of exporting and how we talk about it. There are too many negative tropes about how difficult it all is. And I think that there are lots of people who would be exporting who don’t do so because that’s all they hear.”
“We are discouraging people indirectly from going out there and doing things because all they’re hearing is that it’s too tough. It isn’t too tough. There are many resources that are out there that can help,” she said.
She urged firms to embrace the new trading opportunities that have opened up post-Brexit.
“So something that I think we should be doing is talk about all the new things that one can do, that are happening and just change the perception around exporting for businesses,” she said.
But critics said the UK was currently facing a “perfect storm” of difficult trading conditions.
Research by the Institute of Directors (IoD) found exporters feel constrained by the current trading environment, due to a mixture of Brexit-related friction, macro-economic pressures and a heightened sense of geopolitical risk, weakening confidence in exporting initiatives.
Emma Rowland, a trade policy advisor at the IoD, said UK exports had been “sluggish” since the pandemic.
“It’s clear Brexit has had the largest influence over businesses’ exporting strategies, having created barriers to trade and also increased competition from EU-based firms,” she said.
“Some are trying to reorientate to new markets, but it’s not straightforward and feels like second best. It’s crucial the government takes the necessary steps to remove barriers to trade and encourages UK businesses to export with the EU and beyond,” she said.
James Watkins, from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “Since the onset of the pandemic, British businesses have faced the most challenging economic headwinds in a generation.”
He added: “Badenoch’s remarks will leave many business leaders thinking her energies would be better spent working hard to negotiate free trade agreements on behalf of British firms, rather than criticising the country’s wealth creators and drivers of prosperity.
“We would urge her to listen to and understand businesses’ real and pressing concerns, and work constructively with our members and businesses across the country to deliver growth, jobs and services.”
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “British businesses do not need a lesson on ‘toughening up’, least of all from a Conservative government that has delivered a cost-of-living crisis, rocketing borrowing costs and stagnant economic growth.
“With the Tories it’s always someone else’s responsibility. Ministers are trying to shift the blame for failing to deliver on the trade opportunities promised in their own manifesto. This message will go down like a lead balloon with hard pressed British businesses.”