There was little respite from the febrile political atmosphere of Westminster for Tory Cabinet Minister Liz Truss as she spent the evening with her mother in north Leeds this week.
Returning to the city where she spent several years of her childhood, attending Roundhay School and “hanging around in Roundhay Park”, she yesterday toured local businesses extolling the opportunities for post-Brexit global trade.
Brought up in a “very left-wing household” in Leeds, her mother supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament while her father is a professor of pure mathematics at the University of Leeds.
While staying with her mother this week she describes having “a bit of political debate”. “She has said she thinks Boris is doing a very good job,” laughing as she adds: “Her friends will probably not be very happy that I said that in The Yorkshire Post.”
Reflecting on her time in Leeds in the late 80s and early 90s, she says this period was “when the city’s renaissance began”. “Every time I come back I see it’s getting better and better, more new buildings going up, more activity.”
As International Trade Secretary, Mrs Truss is in Yorkshire to promote the successes of the region’s firms exporting round the world. A Huddersfield firm has recently secured an £11m contract to deliver truck blowers to the US, while Yorkshire soap Emmerdale is sold to 196 territories worldwide.
She stressed the help available for firms looking to market their goods and services overseas, with local trade advisors and export champions appointed to offer advice and information on her department’s website. “Often it’s about taking the plunge,” she says. “But once you started exporting, it’s a lot easier to do the next sale to get the next opportunity.”
'Period of limbo hasn't helped businesses'
But the current political uncertainty, she admits, is putting firms off from exploring potential exporting opportunities, with MPs refusing to back Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal deal and now demanding more time to scrutinise that of Boris Johnson.
“There has been a period of limbo, that’s not helpful if you’re considering investment,” she says. “We’ve now got a clear plan, the free trade agreement with the EU, free trade agreements with the rest of the world. I think we can get 80 per cent of all the trade we do in the UK covered by free trade agreements which would be brilliant for business if you can get all those tariffs removed. What we need is for MPs to vote for that deal.”
Despite no free trade deal being in place offering unrestricted access, the biggest export market for Yorkshire is the United States. Mrs Truss hopes an agreement with the US would cut paperwork and make things easier for smaller and medium-sized firms.
“Another thing we want to do is reduce tariffs,” she says. “So for example on products like textile products like tea we have to pay a tariff to export to the US so what we’d want to try and do is get those tariffs to zero so that companies didn’t essentially have to pay a tax to get their products into the US market.
“With the creative industries, we want to remove barriers to making bigger investments in the US, being able to move personnel between the US and the UK, just making it easier to do business.
“That’s what this is all about, it’s all about removing the barriers so that it’s as easy as for a Yorkshire company to work in the US as it is for them to work in Lancashire.”
She is unhappy with the “arbitrary” import taxes placed by Donald Trump’s administration which have hit the UK’s whisky, textiles and biscuit industries, but says a free trade deal would ensure a free flow of goods and services. “The US is a major destination for Yorkshire exporters,” she says. “We don’t control the US government but what we can do is have a free trade deal that creates zero tariffs and prevents the threat of future tariffs.”
'Being in the single market had a cost'
Around 80 per cent of the UK economy is based around services rather than goods, with Leeds and the surrounding area having particular strengths in technology, legal and professional services.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, which takes the UK out of the European single market, is expected to result in regulatory barriers to trade for these vital industries, making it harder for British firms to operate on the continent.
Mrs Truss admits the UK’s relationship with the EU on services will not be as deep as being in the single market, but that our ability to make our own rules and regulations will make it easier to strike deals elsewhere.
“Being in the single market had a cost, and the cost was that we had to follow all the EU regulations that made it more difficult for us to do business with the rest of the world.”
Though it took seven years for the European Union to negotiate a free trade deal with Canada, the Minister insists it’s “completely doable” for the UK to do the same by the end of the transition period next year, when the UK no longer has to abide by EU rules.
“Australia manages to negotiate trade deals within months. The US has negotiated a trade deal with Canada and Mexico within a year.
“People were saying it was impossible that Boris Johnson was going to get a new deal that they wouldn’t open the withdrawal agreement, and in 85 days, he secured a new deal with the EU. My feeling about a lot of these negotiations is when it gets to the wire, when it gets to the last minute it’s when the people actually get into the room and start talking in earnest, so my view is that yes we can do it in that time.”
'Decision on Brexit has been taken out of PM's hands'
But until a Brexit deal is approved by Parliament, the precise details of how a future trade deal will work remain a moot point.
Boris Johnson’s pledge made in Wakefield a few weeks ago that he would rather “die in a ditch” than delay Brexit looks set to be broken as the Commons refuses to do his bidding. “This has been taken out of his hands by Parliament,” says Mrs Truss.
“I think the public can see that that. He was very clear he doesn’t want an extension, he’s continuing to say that to European counterparts that the Government doesn’t want an extension.
“The fact is, it was Parliament, who voted for it in the surrender act (officially known as the Benn Act after Leeds MP Hilary Benn) that they wanted this extension. This is one of the many reasons that we need a General Election because we’ve got Parliament who don’t want to get Brexit done.”