Liam Fox has faced a barrage of criticism after launching an outspoken attack on British business culture, claiming that executives prefer to play golf rather than fulfilling their “duty” as exporters.
The International Trade Secretary suggested the UK had lost its way as a trading nation and had grown “too fat” on the successes of previous generations.
Number 10 distanced itself from Dr Fox’s comments, with a source saying he was expressing “private views” while business figures condemned the minister’s intervention.
Former Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne said Dr Fox should quit while entrepreneur Richard Reed said the minister’s comments were “disgusting”.
Business groups defended British industry’s record on exports and called for more support from the Government.
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of manufacturers’ organisation EEF, said: “Our view is Liam Fox’s comments are extremely unwise and extremely unhelpful at a time of huge uncertainty when business is looking to Government to be extremely supportive rather than negative.”
A Confederation of British Industry spokesman said: “This is a time for unprecedented partnership between all business and the Government to help our world leading companies take even more advantage of exporting opportunities.
“Now more than ever we must, in particular, support our small and medium sized businesses to export as they are such a critical backbone of our economy.”
Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry said: “Our latest data shows that UK small exporters grew in the last quarter. They are now more competitive, rising to the challenge and finding new markets.
“If new trade deals are formed with small business at their heart, we should at last see significant export-driven growth for the UK economy.”
Dr Fox was a prominent supporter of Brexit and his department was set up by Theresa May as she took office in the wake of the decision to break from Brussels.
Innocent Drinks co-founder Mr Reed, who campaigned to keep the UK in the EU, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is absolutely disgusting. How dare he? He is a representative of us, of this country and he turns around and slags us off, calling us fat and lazy.
“The guy is a complete fraud. He has never done a day’s business in his life.”
Mr Reed, who also said “I have never played golf in my life”, added that Dr Fox made promises on Brexit and “he should get on with delivering them rather than turning around and trash-talking the country”.
Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who also backed the Remain cause, said “a period of quiet” was now required from Dr Fox.
But Mr Bannatyne responded: “I would say a period of resigning is more appropriate.”
In his unguarded comments at a reception for the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group, Dr Fox said: “We’ve got to change the culture in our country.
“People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty - companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon.”
At the drinks reception on Thursday night, reported by The Times, Dr Fox said: “This country is not the free-trading nation that it once was. We have become too lazy, and too fat on our successes in previous generations.
“What is the point of us reshaping global trade, what is the point of us going out and looking for new markets for the United Kingdom, if we don’t have the exporters to fill those markets?”
A Number 10 source said “clearly he’s expressing private views” and there were no proposals for any penalties for firms that do not export.
The source said: “Whatever form of words we use, the point we all want to make is that Britain can trade its way to greater prosperity, with the well-paid jobs and security that entails.
“The reason we set up a Department for International Trade was precisely so we can reach new trade agreements and support British exporters.”
It is the second time in recent days that Downing Street has been forced to distance itself from comments made by prominent Brexit-backing ministers, after David Davis’s suggestion that it is “very improbable” the UK can regain control over its own borders while remaining part of the European single market.
A spokesman for the Trade Secretary said: “Dr Fox is committed to supporting the full range of businesses in the UK so that they can best take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit presents.”
Shadow business secretary Jon Trickett said: “British firms are not ‘fat and lazy’ as Liam Fox suggests; they are suffering from a government that has no idea how to build an industrial strategy.
“Theresa May has substituted a proper meaningful industrial strategy for rhetoric and watchwords.
“It is simply not good enough. Britain needs a strategic economic plan, not a government that will stand by and simply blame business for their own failings.”