Slashing import tariffs to zero should Britain crash out of the EU would “decimate” the potteries industry in the Brexit-voting city of Stoke, two MPs for the area today warn.
Labour MPs Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth are sounding the alarm as ministers prepare to unveil an emergency plan to unilaterally liberalise tariffs as the threat of no-deal looms.
The two Midlands politicians have also said they could withhold support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal unless the move is ruled out.
HuffPost UK understands the prime minister could make an announcement on tariffs as early as Thursday, with parliament still gridlocked over her withdrawal agreement.
Ministers will argue cutting duties will offset a feared rise in inflation, but farming and industry experts say the move would flood the UK market with cheap goods.
Blogging for HuffPost, Snell and Smeeth, MPs for Stoke Central and Stoke North, warned ministers the tariff plan “would smash our ceramic sector to pieces”.
The Ceramics Federation, meanwhile, called on the government to “stop this madness” and “stand up for manufacturing not sell us down the river”.
Like most industry in the ’70s and ’80s, both the pits and the pots suffered horribly at the hands of Thatcherite economic policies and rampant globalisation.Stoke Labour MPs Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth
Highlighting that potteries makes the same contribution to the UK economy as fisheries – a £2bn annual turnover and £600m of export sales – the two MPs said: “Our city, Stoke-on-Trent was built on ‘pits’ and ‘pots’.
“Like most industry in the ’70s and ’80s, both the pits and the pots suffered horribly at the hands of Thatcherite economic policies and rampant globalisation. The pits didn’t survive.
“But thankfully the story is very different for the ceramic sector. Once considered to be another industry on the scrapheap, a resurgence in fortune is seeing jobs return to the potteries where we are ensuring that the fashion for ‘made in England’ tableware is now as big as it ever was.”
Trade secretary Liam Fox looks set to use ministerial powers to amend the Trade Bill to slash tariffs. But May’s cabinet is reportedly split over the plan, with Remainers such as business secretary Greg Clark thought to be against it.
The MPs added: “In a stroke of a pen, the Department of International Trade could kill off one of our oldest and proudest industries.
“And to achieve what? We both want to deliver a Brexit deal for our constituents but it has to be a Brexit that works for the Potteries not one that will decimate our remaining manufacturing base.”
Laura Cohen, chief executive of the British Ceramic Confederation, has been holding talks with ministers in a bid to get Fox to change course.
“Research shows it won’t actually work, as tariff savings are rarely passed on to customers,” she said. “But zero tariffs will destroy the proud history of ‘making things’ in Britain.
“It will also be difficult to do trade deals as we’ve got less to negotiate with.
“This cuts to the heart of the sort of country we want to be.”
Cohen added: “This is a moment to stand up for manufacturing, not sell us down the river.
“We need government to stop this madness now and consult properly on something that so fundamentally affects our economy.”
An analysis by GMB, the ceramics union, shows 22,000 jobs in the potteries industry could be lost should tariffs be cut to zero.
Jude Brimble, national secretary, said: “The potteries have defied the odds to grow since the recession – and are now at the forefront of innovation and design.
“The truth is the government has failed to engage and consult in a meaningful way since the Brexit vote - they could have tested the impact that zero tariffs would have across different manufacturing sectors.
“They have not done this and to suddenly announce that zero tariffs would apply in the ceramics sector is reckless in the extreme.”
A government spokesman, meanwhile, said ministers had yet to settle on a plan.
He told HuffPost: “No decision has been taken on our applied tariffs after we leave the European Union and the government is currently considering all options in the event of a no-deal.
“We will need to balance a number of considerations to avoid potential prices rises for consumers and manage the impact on producers that rely heavily on supply chains, as well as those who are currently protected from global competition by import tariffs.”