Mark Menzies is a member of the Transport Select Committee, and is MP for Fylde.
After David Cameron presented his renegotiation settlement with the European Council to Parliament in February, my instinctive reaction was to turn up my nose and head for the exit. The piffling concessions that the European Union presented to the UK, though faced with the prospect of losing the third largest contributor to its budget, confirmed my view that the EU could not be reformed.
My heart and a good deal of my head told me to back the Leave camp, to rid ourselves of the shackles of the European super-state, reclaim our sovereignty and prosper as an integrated part of the whole world, not just the EU.
But two things held me back. The first was loyalty to David Cameron – I understood the implications for him if we voted to leave from day one of the referendum campaign. The second and more important reason that I voted to remain in the EU was purely practical: I was concerned that we did not, nor that we currently have the personnel or the organisation to make Brexit a success.
My argument against leaving the EU was not, therefore, based on the absence of our strategy for leaving – though, lamentably, none appears to have yet been properly considered. We have many great minds in this country and now a formidably gifted new Prime Minister, a combination of which is certainly capable of working out what to do next.
Instead, the challenge that faces us most acutely is the capability of existing Government structures to implement its eventual exit strategy, thus enabling the UK to make the most of its position outside of the EU.
While much of the focus has been on the medium-term process of negotiating our exit from the EU, we must be mindful that Brexit will only be successful in the long term if we take this unique opportunity to simultaneously improve our trading relationships with the rest of the world as well.
In this, we cannot afford to waste time. If Britain is to prosper in a new order outside the EU, then the Government must ensure that it immediately puts a framework in place to deal with the new demands that will soon be placed upon it. And not only do we desperately need a new organisation in place to deliver trade deals for the UK, we must seize this rare chance to rip up the rule book on Whitehall recruitment and to staff it with handpicked individuals from across government, industry, finance and law – from across the world, not merely the UK and Brussels.
In my role as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Argentina, I have been working closely with the new Ambassador to improve trade links between Britain and Argentina, building on the goodwill fostered by President Macri since his election in November. Our work culminated in the first visit of an inbound delegation of Argentine Senators for many years, led by Federico Pinedo, Provisional President of the Senate, to discuss cooperation between our two parliaments on this key subject.
I organised a meeting at the London Stock Exchange, chaired by Sir Michael Rake, Chairman of BT, between the delegation and a number of influential City investors, at which there was significant criticism of the EU for failing to deliver a long-awaited trade deal with countries in the Mercosur trade group. Despite this clear failure of the EU to come up with a deal over nearly two decades, the overwhelming consensus in the room was that non-European countries would rather negotiate with Britain as a part of the EU, than outside it. We now have no option but to change this perception.
Argentina accounts for only 0.1 per cent of UK exports and imports, despite it being the 25th largest economy in the world; a clear example of our failure to engage with new and emerging markets from within the EU. While a new trade department must inevitably look to push to the front of the ‘queue’ with the USA and Europe as its key priorities, there would be no greater demonstration of the benefits of Brexit if we move quickly to secure good deals with neglected markets, such as Argentina. This will also bring with it political benefits.
Though we are currently in no position to carry out this vitally important and highly challenging work, the approach that we generally take in appointing our trade ministers offers a blueprint for the way forward. Our current trade minister, Lord Price, has done some very good work in the short time that he has been in post, including his leadership of a trade delegation to Argentina earlier this year. I have been impressed by his vision for the role, which comes as no great surprise, given his background of success as Managing Director of Waitrose.
We don’t just need good people who know what they are doing at the top. While our civil service is very good at evolving to suit changing times, we are about to commit the UK to a revolution, which calls for a complete rethink. United Kingdom Trade and Investment was good at what it did, but that job is nothing as to what is required from a body tasked with undertaking multiple trade negotiations at the same time.
It goes without saying that we must invest heavily and increase personnel. But I want us to do much more than that. I want us to tempt the very best to come over from the private sector, from other areas of government, and other parts of the world to help build up our new Department of Trade. I want us to ignore the normal rules on civil service pay and appointments. I want the Government to ensure that this really will be the department of all the talents, from top to bottom.
I voted to remain in the EU because I did not believe that UK governments – whichever political party was in power – could be adaptable or dynamic enough to deal with the enormous challenges that exiting the EU will create. I am hopeful that we can work to prove my reasoning invalid.
The opportunity to build a new Whitehall department – virtually from scratch – provides the Government with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn from past experiences of failure and to institute a new body that is equipped to deal effectively with the current challenges that Britain faces, from day one. Let’s not squander it.