The UK is right to want to secure trade with the EU – a deal with China won’t be enough

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With no discernible hint of irony, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, advises the British public to stop obsessing about Europe, when it was the Conservative Party’s fixation on the issue that lumbered the nation with the referendum no one really wanted and now the disaster of Brexit.

What Dr Fox means, more comprehensibly, is that because the proportion of the UK’s exports that goes to the EU was falling, “we’ve got to be focussing on the growing bits of the global economy”. That is all very well, but membership of the EU never prevented the British from exporting more to other countries. The Germans show what can be done with a competitive export sector. The British have not yet achieved that.

It is difficult to do as Dr Fox suggests in the light of some very brutal facts. For example, the country he and the Prime Minister are visiting, China, takes £17bn of British exports. The other members of the European Union, by contrast, take £240bn of this country’s goods and services every year. Even were British trade with China to double, treble or quadruple, it would still be dwarfed by the economic dependency we have with our closest friends and allies. Unlike China, it must be added, Britain shares its deepest and most cherished democratic values with the other members of the EU, and a perfect alignment of defence and security interests. Try as the British might to talk up the “vital” relationship the country is seeking to forge with China, it will never be able to rival that which is currently available across the English Channel.

What is even more galling is Dr Fox’s playing-down of the chances of a “gold standard” UK-China trade deal. This is a markedly more cautious mood than that struck during and immediately after the referendum, when Leavers were keen to stress the exciting opportunities that would be afforded to Britain in fast-growing emerging economies such as China. All things were possible in those overexcited days; now it seems the achievements will be very modest indeed. The raw economic power of the world’s second largest economy pitted against the world’s sixth largest economy skews the prospect of any deal bringing easy gains for the British. Dr Fox, in contrast to other Brexiteers, is wise to change his tune towards under-promising and overachieving on trade, rather than the other way around, which is the general attitude displayed by his devil-may-care colleague David Davis.

Still, it is certainly encouraging that the Chinese seem to have taken a liking to Theresa May, granting her the affectionate sobriquet “auntie”. Plainly she commands more respect and attention from foreign leaders than she does in her own party, and the Conservatives’ paroxysms about Europe show little sign of subsiding. Steve Baker, a minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union and one of the more Eurosceptic members of the May administration, has accused civil servants of trying to sabotage Brexit, as if ministers and the policy itself weren’t capable of destroying itself and taking large swathes of the British economy with it. Other minsters wonder aloud if Brexit will be really worth the bother, and the Government is on its fourth version of the truth about the economic impact assessments (having travelled through confirmation of “excruciating detail”, denial of their existence, leak and downgrading to the current “preliminary work”).

Brexit, then, continues to obsess the political world and the public, and rightly so. It is only by discussing it, testing government policies, holding minsters to account and seeking the greatest possible disclosure of official thinking, that the public can be expected to take a view on what is going on. As the scrutiny on Brexit grows closer, the case for another vote on the actual Brexit deal grows stronger.