Ministers steering the UK towards Brexit cannot point to a single country that has expressed an interest in striking a free trade deal.
With the second set of negotiations set to accelerate in 2018, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox will be stepping up efforts to find trade deals the UK can sign after Brexit in 2019.
But when challenged by Labour MP Stella Creasy over which foreign governments were queuing up to trade with the UK, his department floundered.
Greg Hands, Trade Minister, refused to list any country after Creasy’s Parliamentary Question, saying that “the UK has met with a wide range of countries to discuss various aspects of our trading relationship.”
Creasy, a leading supporter of the pro-single market campaign Open Britain, said: “The Prime Minister wants us to believe that the economic damage of leaving the EU will be made up by concluding trade deals around the world – but her own trade minister can’t point to a single country that has expressed an interest in a free trade deal with Britain.
“We all procrastinate from time to time, but Liam Fox is taking it to another level. It’s extraordinary that so little progress has been made eighteen months on since the referendum.
“People are already feeling the pinch as a result of Brexit, with prices rising and growth slowing. A hard Brexit will make things even worse, and shiny new trade deals are not going to materialise. Voters have the right to keep an open mind about whether this is really the best future for our country.”
In September, Fox told journalists the UK does not have the “capacity” to strike deals and that he has turned down countries.
“There are a number of countries who said they would like to move directly to a new free-trade agreement but we have said we are simply unable to do that at the moment,” he said.
“It requires the willingness of the country involved to want to move the process further on and it’s dependent on our own capacity in our own department.”
He said that signing a deal with the US is his number one priority and that talks have opened, with America reportedly insisting on complete secrecy.
In Hands’ answer to the Walthamstow MP, he said: “The UK has met with a wide range of countries to discuss various aspects of our trading relationship. Whilst we are still members of the EU, the UK cannot negotiate and conclude free trade agreements.
“The Department for International Trade is currently engaging with all countries with which the EU has trade agreements, to discuss continuity of current trading arrangements as the UK leaves the EU. The Department has also announced a number of working groups with whom there is no EU deal in place, including the US, China, Australia, Japan and New Zealand.”