18 July 2022
Michael Gasiorek is Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and Co-Director of the Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy. He is Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex Business School.
Boris Johnson was elected on the slogan and promise of ‘Get Brexit Done’. It is perhaps somewhat ironic, then, to see disagreement between the contenders to succeed him as to whether Brexit has actually yet been done.
Ironic, but not surprising. It is not surprising because, aside from encapsulating the formal leaving of the EU, Brexit has always meant different things to different people. Just as there were myriad different forms of possible departure from the EU, there are myriad ex-post interpretations of whether or not Brexit has been (truly) achieved. Brexit is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.
An absolutely central feature of Brexit – and of the deal struck with the EU – was to grant UK independence over the formulation of trade policy. It is striking therefore, in watching the televised debates between the candidates (which include a former Secretary of State for Trade, and a current Trade Minister) vying to replace the Prime Minister, that none of them have chosen to meaningfully engage with and discuss trade policy. I exaggerate a bit – we have heard several times from Liz Truss that she has signed numerous trade deals.
Why does ignoring trade policy matter? Listening to the debates, one might think that all of the current significant economic issues being discussed are purely domestic matters. From the cost-of-living crisis to low economic growth (note that levelling up and regional disparities have barely had a mention), the policy choices dominating the debates are whether or not to raise or lower taxes, or remove regulations. These challenging issues are not, however, purely domestic matters.
So how has the UK been doing?
Given that a key Brexit ‘dividend’ was sovereignty over trade policy, let’s hear more from the candidates on this.
Speaking as a trade economist, if I had my one question to ask the candidates, I would ask “what do you want from the UK’s independent trade policy and how will this help the UK?” A poor answer would be to say “more trade is good”. We need to know why the candidates may consider it to be good and under what circumstances, how to achieve this, and why it could help with the pressing problems faced by UK consumers, workers, firms and regions.
And back to the specific subject of Brexit and whether or not it is done, it is worth remembering two important things. First, and in the immediate short term, the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is manifestly not resolved, whether or not the proposed Northern Ireland Protocol Bill goes through the UK Parliament. Second, and in the longer term, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU calls for a joint review of the TCA with the possibility of renewal, revision, or termination five years after entry into force of the agreement, and every five years thereafter. These issues concern the bulk of UK trade and highlight that thinking constructively about UK trade policy is an imperative.
 The debates took place on Friday 15th and Sun 17th July, and included Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Tom Tugendhat
 Source: Data for 2018, Trade in Employment database, OECD, https://www.oecd.org/sti/ind/trade-in-employment.htm
 See Peter Holmes’ recent blog ‘What we can do to fix Brexit and the Irish Border crisis’ (https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/uktpo/2022/05/23/what-we-can-do-to-fix-brexit-and-the-irish-border-crisis/)
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