‘An uncomfortable chair’ – why the international trade secretary wrongly believes trade deals are quick and easy, and why this false belief matters

22nd April 2021

One of the consequences of politicians not having careers before entering parliament is that ministers can be over-influenced by unusual experiences.

For example, as home secretary Theresa May and her advisors had the benefit of the ‘pick-and-choose’ approach to European Union justice and home affairs matters, where the United Kingdom had a number of opt-outs.

And so when May and those advisors were translated to 10 Downing Street it appeared that they believed that the same à la carte approach could be taken to the single market in the Brexit negotiations, unaware that the European Union would instead have a more of an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach.

Similarly the current international trade secretary Elizabeth Truss has been misled by her experiences to date into thinking international free trade deals are easy.

This is because in the immediate post-Brexit period it was possible to ‘rollover’ a number of existing trade deals between the European Union and (so-called) third countries, almost on a ‘copy-and-paste’ basis.

 

Such a formative experience would also be informed by the basic error of post-2016 governments of the United Kingdom that Brexit itself was a quick and easy task.

But.

There is a significant difference between continuing with an existing trade arrangement and putting in place an entirely new free trade agreement from scratch, especially with another major economy.

The slowness, however, is a surprise and a disappointment to the current international trade secretary, who is a politician in a hurry.

And so we get this preposterous news story.

*

‘…an uncomfortable chair’

The only normal reaction to the detail of this excruciating news story is to cringe with sheer embarrassment. 

(By the way, the use of ‘allies’ as a plural means that the pronouns for the ‘source’ are the less-revealing they/them – which are presumably the international trade secretary’s preferred pronouns.)

Of course, this daft intervention has not gone unnoticed by Australia.

Perhaps the ‘allies’ of the international trade secretary did not believe that these comments would ever reach the Australians.

Silly them.

*

The serious point here is, well, about the lack of seriousness.

The United Kingdom needs to be taken seriously as a party to international agreements in this new, lonely post-Brexit period.

Yet the United Kingdom seems no closer to getting why this important.

We have a prime minister who is loudly and publicly denouncing as ‘ludicrous’ the very arrangements in respect of Northern Ireland that resulted from his own change of policy, which he negotiated and signed, and for which he campaigned for and won an electoral mandate before rushing into law.

There seems to be an unawareness that the world is watching these antics.

And although they may ‘play well’ to domestic political and media constituencies, that is at a cost to the United Kingdom’s interests as an actor on the international stage.

The prime minister and he international trade secretary need a period of reflection about these counterproductive utterances and gestures.

Perhaps they should sit down, and think hard about what they are doing for a few hours.

Perhaps, even, in an uncomfortable chair.

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32 thoughts on “‘An uncomfortable chair’ – why the international trade secretary wrongly believes trade deals are quick and easy, and why this false belief matters”

  1. After the PM and International Trade Sec have sat in an uncomfortable chair and had serious thoughts for a few hours, I have a horrible feeling they would emerge saying the same things as before, and possibly worse than that, still thinking that it is the best way forward.

    By the way, I hope I am not the only person who, thinking of those two together, has an image of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, hand in hand.

  2. I’m confused by the term “allies”. Isn’t that term usually used for another country, members of another party or something like that who wouldn’t normally be on your side but join forces with you to reach a common goal?
    Presumably the “allies” here which are really “sources” work in her department, are members of her party or something like that and therefore are by definition on her side. They aren’t allies.

    1. I think in this case “Allies” is political lobby code for the politician themselves or their spokesperson speaking off the record.

    2. Senior figures within parties definitely have allies, whose allegiances become important when there is an internal jostle for party power. They may be nominally on the side of all their party colleagues, but may indeed work in their “ally”‘s department and accordingly quite fancy an invitation to a loftier department should they be so promoted.

      In practice, it hardly matters whether the person supplying the press release dressed up as an inside scoop is someone working independently who sees the success of the International Trade Secretary as beneficial to their own career interests, someone acting at the direct request of the International Trade Secretary, or the International Trade Secretary herself. In all cases the implied motivation is to make the International Trade Secretary look good in ways that may favour her continued success in future reshuffles or leadership elections.

      Considering the implied motivation, her rivals’ allies must be thrilled.

      1. Thanks, looking at it that way using “allies” makes sense, looking at it from the side of internal party politics and rivalry.

  3. Good of Liz Truss to entertain us all yesterday with this hilarious press briefing, recalling The Great Dictator.

  4. It’s impossible to believe that a senior or Prime Minister’s Civil Service advisers would be ignorant of the realities. But political advisers are another matter. It’s much easier to believe that they are ignorant or disbelieving of them, or are intending, in statements such as this, to speak to supporters who are. If this last was the intention, it’s a clumsy way of doing it, given that other countries read UK media. But in actual approach to the negotiations, as opposed to the portrayal of them for partisan consumption, I think it can often come down to whose advice to accept – that of officials or that of political advisers. Notwithstanding the wider world realities, a Minister cannot completely ignore the advice of the latter given the demands of the political environment. The problem is that Truss is – no doubt willingly, given her obvious ambitiousness – trapped by unrealistic politics. At their best, political advisers can be a useful conduit between a minister and the bureaucracy, but the danger is that they encourage ministers to listen to what they want to hear rather than what they need to.

    1. >It’s impossible to believe that a senior or Prime Minister’s Civil Service advisers would be ignorant of the realities.

      Quite. And even if that were the briefing being given to the minister, no Civil Servant would leak it to the press

      >But political advisers are another matter.

      To paraphrase an old saw – It’s SpAds all the way down.

  5. “There seems to be an unawareness that the world is watching these antics.

    And although they may ‘play well’ to domestic political and media constituencies, that is at a cost to the United Kingdom’s interests as an actor on the international stage.”

    One might reasonably conclude that Johnson and his cabinet of clowns don’t much care about the “international stage”. What they care about is power (and the access to money it gives them), and the way to keep hold of power is to play to their “domestic political and media constituencies”. Everything else pales into insignificance.

    Brexit alone is sufficient proof that Britain’s interests and reputation on the international stage are of no concern to these dangerous fools.

  6. If the UK throws open its borders to any and all imports from a trade counterparty and asks for nothing much in return then “negotiating” a deal should be pretty straightforward.

  7. This is the logical endpoint of Gove’s “we don’t need experts” stance. We are governed by chancers, lickpittles and those that get a slot because of loyalty to “the glorious leader” and – in Truss’s case – simply having the requesite chromosomal make-up to show that Bojo is really into “empowering” women: tokenism at its worst.

    I am reminded of a teenage party when the grown-ups are out and the kids get their first experiences of booze and the opposite sex. Things will get broken, there may be unpleasant consequences, it is never their fault and somebody else will be expected to tidy up and sort things out when the revellers have slunk off to nurse their hangovers.

    1. Re the horrendous “we don’t need experts”, I imagine some Government idiot (or “ally”) will at some point say “we don’t need exports”

    2. Truss is there because she was one of the authors of Britannia Unchained, a simplistic right wing manifesto which argued for the much of what has happened with Brexit. Fellow contributors Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng are also in Johnson’s cabinet. The other, Chris Skidmore, was one of Johnson’s ministers too but fell out of favour.

  8. Oh dear, we left the closed shop and are now standing on a cold windy street. Seems to me our politicians don’t really have many options – very few in fact. Makes no difference who is in No 10 or how clever they are, the laws of nature remain the same and they are cold and hard and unyielding.

    I can tell Boris for nothing that India makes very good whisky and cars are common as muck. So a good job he is not wasting either nation’s time. The problem of the day is that politics has reached an impasse, there is no whizzy ‘solution’. Any fool can make or do anything anywhere, we are just a few among many.

    Our main problem now is to slow the rate of going backwards.

  9. “He needs to show that he can play at this level.” Exactly. It is all a game for them. The sort of game that drives people out of business, creates civil disorder on the streets, and lets more than 150,000 people die from a pandemic disease. Famine, war, pestilence, death.

    If Mr Tehan finds himself sitting in an uncomfortable chair, I suggest he stands up. Or brings a cushion.

    I rather suspect he and his team will be better at playing this game than Ms Truss and her friends.

  10. Johnson’s constant use of metaphor – ‘barnacles’ and ‘sandpapering’ are just the latest – is a sign of his failure to engage seriously with the grave problems facing our country. We need facts, and he gives us vacuity. Flatten the sombrero anyone?

  11. Truss probably got the idea of an uncomfortable chair after a chat over a coffee with Priti Patel. The only difference being that Patel’s has a switch.

  12. I’m so glad that this has been flagged up. Excruciating barely covers it. Hardly a couple of days go by without Johnson’s or a member of the cabinet’s pitiful ignorance being put on proud display. In the history of the British parliament, was there ever a PM who blustered over the phone “I am the First Lord of the Treasury” while at the same time dispensing favourable treatment?
    It’s just a matter of time now. But in the meantime the country must endure the spectacle that is Johnson’s form of governing.

  13. The main reason for not going ahead with Brexit in any form was that it was inevitably going to diminish the UK’s prestige and influence in the world.

    In all the arguments about sovereignty, economics, and so on, that key point seemed to be overlooked by all parties.

    And that of prestige and influence started playing out in all kinds of ways even before Brexit “got done”. This is one more instance.

    1. it was inevitably going to diminish the UK’s prestige and influence in the world.

      This was never going to be a barrier to the benighted specimens who voted for Brexit.

      To spare even a moment’s concern for how the UK might appear to the rest of the world, would be to admit to caring about what Johnny Foreigner thinks – which by definition is anathema to these people.

  14. It seems to me that these clow …. sorry people in government haven’t realised that trade negotiations are collaborative ones and going in all guns blazing is utterly the wrong thing to do.
    Which means that if there is a wonky chair in the negotiation room, you should take it to make your negotiation partner (!) as comfortable as possible. Because you will need them to feel positive and supportive towards you and a combative attitude is self-defeating. You will need your negotiation partner to come up with some – new and creative – ideas to find solutions which will work to the benefit of both of you.

    And yes, the outside world is watching. And listening. Carefully.

  15. I am sure that when I wake up I will find out that I have just had an Alice in Wonderland type dream

  16. When I read this in the news yesterday I was astonished by this latest in the series of trade own goals by the UK. Wasn’t the Commonwealth supposed to be part of our new Global Britain trading ambitions? If so why go out of your way to demean Dan Tehan, the Australian trade minister, in this way?

    The “ally” of Truss reportedly said Dan Tehan “is inexperienced compared to Liz. He needs to show that he can play at this level.” The idea that Truss is experienced at doing trade deals when she hasn’t done anything except roll over existing EU deals is delusional. Is a day in an uncomfortable chair spent with her supposed to bring him round to her way of thinking (i.e. not thinking) and quickly sign a simple but useless trade deal? These politicial fantasists seem to think the UK can do and say as it pleases without consequences.

    Apart from anything else the childish way this was put gives a very bad impression of the calibre of people in powerful positions in the British Government.

    1. Brexit was founded in Populism, proposing that complex issues can be solved with simplistic solutions

      Would it be unfair to assume that many proponents of Brexit are not capable of understanding the complexity of many of the issues over which they now have domain?

      Or are they just pretending to be out of their depth?

      1. Are they capable of understanding the complexity? Some may well be. I don’t think any of the authors of Britannia Unchained knew what they were talking about though. Being in government doesn’t seem to have enlightened them.

        Michael Gove famously said we didn’t need experts. This is just another example of what happens when you ignore them.

    2. The “ally” of Truss reportedly said Dan Tehan “is inexperienced compared to Liz.

      Some of Tehan’s experience, courtesy of Wikipedia:

      Tehan worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1995 to 1998 and then was a member of the diplomatic service from 1999 to 2001.

      He was posted to Mexico City and was also involved with Central America and Cuba.

      In 2002 he was seconded to the office of Trade Minister Mark Vaile. When Vaile became deputy prime minister in 2005 Tehan remained with him as a senior adviser.

      He later served as chief of staff to Fran Bailey, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism. After the defeat of the Howard Government, he served as director of trade policy and international affairs with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2007–2008) and deputy state director of the Liberal Party in Victoria (2008–2009).

      I think it fair to say that he has probably forgotten more about international trade, diplomacy and negotiation, than Truss will ever know…

  17. If I remember correctly, Liz Truss, was ranked as one, if not the most popular, ministers with Tory members and thus seen as a possible successor to Johnson.

    And so for Truss, as for other ministers – Johnson and Frost especially, they have seen that their method works. They posture and they blunder but they continue to rise.

    And they won’t feel the effects of the really serious problems that all this causes because either they will be gone by then or they’ll find something else to distract.

    To my mind, this is the biggest issue with Brexit: not that the policy itself was bad (though I think it was) but that political behaviours that should be unacceptable were instead rewarded.

  18. The Sydney Morning Herald cuts to the core of Truss’s problem:

    “While Australia is happy to work on a trade deal with Britain, it is not seen as a vital boost to the economy whereas the British government is desperate to sign new deals to justify Brexit.”

    The ONS figures for 2020 trade with Australia are £2.5M + £4.3M import+export. For trade with Germany the figures are £55M + £32M. Yet more revealingly, the 2020 Australian-German trade totalled £9.6M – a 50% increase in trade with the UK will be required just to match the existing trade with one of the larger EU trading partners.

  19. Does it even play to its target audience? “Good old Liz, out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again, she’ll soon have trade deals stitched up around the world, apart from the odd Aussie, she’ll put him in his place – 9 hours in a chair, that should get him back on track – Maggie would have done the same. 9 hours and he’ll soon realise what he’s dealing with. I mean, they’re novices aren’t they, the Aussies, new country, they don’t have the track record. Britain, we’ve got the best civil service in the world, and Liz, degree from Oxford, she’s a qualified accountant – not on the same level? – they’re not even playing the same game of football. Maggie would have shown them. 9 hours, even after that it’s probably not going to get sorted, they’ve got to buck their ideas up if they want to buy our Scotch, our vaccines, our soaps. They don’t know what they’re dealing with. Transportation, we should bring that back. Maggie would have sorted them. Good old Liz. Who needs Europe when we’ve got Liz Truss?”

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