Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are “clueless” about the world economy, a former Tory Treasury minister has declared.
Lord O’Neill of Gatley said that Johnson was a “ludicrous” figure and that he and Liam Fox were “crazy” to focus on “shameful” talk of trade deals with Commonwealth countries like New Zealand, rather than China.
The 60-year-old former Goldman Sachs economist, who served under George Osborne until last year, tore into the Cabinet ministers as it emerged that the UK was considering joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc 4,500 miles away, once it has left the EU.
O’Neill, who coined the term ‘BRICS’ to describe emerging economies in China and India, used an interview with German newspaper Die Welt to attack the Brexiteers in Government such as Johnson and Gove.
“[They are] very intellectual, smart people. But they have no clue about the world economy. They are clueless, sadly. Clueless,” the former minister said.
Johnson and Gove led the Vote Leave campaign that successfully secured Brexit in the EU referendum in 2016.
O’Neill resigned the Tory whip last year and became a crossbencher, after quitting his Treasury job in protest at May’s lack of support for Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policies.
In his interview with Die Welt, he singled out Johnson and Fox for trying to improve trade with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
“This whole thing with the Commonwealth is just shameful. These are all beautiful countries, but .... India may promise something else. But when the Brexitians speak of the Commonwealth, they mean Australia, Canada and New Zealand. New Zealand’s economy is smaller than Greece’s.
“It’s kind of fantasy. This year, China is going to grow by 6.7 per cent. In nominal GDP-dollar terms, China will create a new Australia this year. It will create 4 New Zealands this year. And Liam Fox and our ludicrous foreign minister spend half of their life going to New Zealand. It’s crazy, crazy.”
O’Neill, who joined the Tory government in 2015 having been an adviser to Gordon Brown under Labour, also attacked Theresa May, saying she “doesn’t get out and about and think about China”.
“Within a week of the [EU] referendum the Chinese approached us about a free trade agreement,” he said.
“Under Cameron and Osborne they would have had that discussion 15 months ago....The Prime Minister has failed to visit China at all.
“Okay, she was there once for a G-20 meeting, but embarrassingly there have been no bilateral talks to date. She was twice in Saudi Arabia. Not in China.”
May was forced to delay a trip the country last year after it clashed with Donald Trump’s first visit in November.
Fox is currently on a visit to China, where he will meet government officials and business leaders.
His allies point out that he has flown round the world eight times since his appointment 18 months ago and has visited Australia and New Zealand once each.
A spokesman for the Department for International Trade said: “The International Trade Secretary is visiting China, our fifth largest trade partner, this week as we look beyond the boundaries of Europe to build independent trading relationships with the rest of the world.”
In a New Year article for ConservativeHome, Fox said that “Brexit is not a time-bomb to be defused but a great opportunity to embrace”, and warned the media and Opposition to stop their ‘obsession with criticising Brexit’.
O’Neill also told the German paper that “in [UK] politics a number of persons are neither very clever nor sensible”.
But he stressed that if quitting the EU forced the country to address its regional and productivity problems “Brexit may not be the disaster we fear”.
“There could also be a path where Britain, despite our own stupidity, is growing faster, thanks largely to global economic development. After all, we do not live in a vacuum.
“For example, if the pound becomes slightly stronger again, the negative impact on consumers would be reduced. Then it would be quite possible that the economy would be pleasantly surprised. That would be ironic, of course, because the Brexiteers could say ‘there you see it’.”
He pointed out that even Germany, the powerhouse of the EU, now had China as its most important trading partner.
“International trade is determined by three factors. Distance is number one. Then, and that’s the area where China gets meaning, the size of the market. Third, competitiveness.
“One of the most interesting statistics I’ve seen this year was the one that is Germany’s most important trading partner now China. The question of whether or not we are a member of the EU is nothing but a diversionary tactic. Anyone who wants to do good on international trade can do that. So we can do that too, including with the EU, if we do it skillfully and sensibly.”
Lord O’Neill’s outspoken remarks came as it emerged that the UK is in tentative talks about joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc with 11 countries such as Mexico, Japan and Canada. Trump has withdrawn from the free trade deal, claiming it was a ‘rape of our country’.
Simon Fraser, a former Foreign Office permanent secretary, described the plan as ‘cloud cuckoo land’.
And Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable tweeted ‘far-flung’ trade deals were no substitute for an EU trade deal.
Greg Hands, the minister for trade policy, confirmed the government was open to joining the bloc. “Nothing is excluded in all of this,” he told the Financial Times. “With these kind of plurilateral relationships, there doesn’t have to be any geographical restriction.”
Sir Lockwood Smith, New Zealand’s former high commissioner and a former trade minister, told a conference in London last year: “It’s very easy to do a quick and nasty trade agreement. “There will be plenty of people knocking on the UK’s door. They are easy to do but you will regret them for years afterwards.”
Meanwhile, the FT claimed on Tuesday that Brexit Secretary David Davis had felt sidelined by Theresa May in the final stages of crunch talks with Brussels last month.
The paper said that “those who know Mr Davis well” claim that before Christmas he was contemplating the possibility that somebody else might conclude the Brexit negotiations in 2018.
Friends said he was frustrated at how Olly Robbins, May’s civil service “sherpa” on Brexit talks, had assumed a more central role since he moved into the heart of the Number 10 operation.