Kemi Badenoch leaving 10 Downing Street, London, following the first Cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Liz Truss. File/Tribune News Service
Tom Peck, The Independent
It’s a question that will echo down the ages of British political history. Were you up for CPTPP? Kemi Badenoch was, at 1am on Friday morning, sharing screengrabs of her zoom call with trade ministers from Japan, Peru, Mexico, Singapore and Malaysia to announce that the United Kingdom is now the first country ever to join the Indo-Pacific trade bloc from many, many thousand miles away from the Indo-Pacific.
It is, of course, only the latest in a very long line of tacit admissions from Brexiteers that Brexit was very obviously a terrible idea.
It is no less maddening, though very much more wearying, to have to listen to the actual government trumpeting the great triumph of some new trade deal with a nation or nations far away, and just sort of hoping the people are stupid enough to not very clearly see that if this is such a great idea, then making trade harder with the enormous and enormously wealthy free-trade zone on our doorstep is clearly a stupid idea.
Which it is — the single stupidest thing any formerly sensible country has ever done.
Most of the insanity is right there to be seen right away. There were our new trade partners, all on Zoom with Kemi Badenoch, more or less right in the middle of their working day. It’s only the British trade minister that’s had to stay up til the middle of the night to get the deal done. It’s a degree of stupidity that’s so large you almost have to applaud it.
For a very long time, the UK’s great advantage, arguably the single reason for London’s huge status as a financial centre, was its time zone, which deals with Tokyo in the morning and New York in the afternoon.
As part of this new ingenious partnership, Brexit Britain stays up til the middle of the night to deal with Peru in the evening and Singapore in the morning. To take that unique advantage and turn it into a massive disadvantage really does take some doing.
The other downside is that it makes trade ministers very tired. So tired that when they inevitably have to go on breakfast television to explain how brilliant they are, they end up giving very stupid answers. They say things like: “It’s the first time we’ve joined a bloc like this in 50 years. There is strength in numbers.”
At this point she did the decent thing and self-interrupted, pointing out entirely unprompted that “we do have an FTA with the EU already so this is adding to that!” Which is kind of, vaguely true.
But we have also put up immense barriers to trade with the European Union, and not only with the European Union. For the last three years, it hasn’t even been possible for people who grow plants in Newcastle to sell them to loyal decade-long customers in Belfast.
There is strength in numbers, certainly. When you’re out on your own, you kind of have to do what other people tell you. Like, for example, slashing import tariffs on Malaysian palm oil from 2 per cent down to zero.
Once upon a time, Michael Gove liked to claim that Brexit would actually mean that Britain could have higher environmental standards than the EU, not lower. Which, like most things Michael Gove says, is carefully worded and theoretically true, but in reality has led directly to the flooding of Britain’s beaches with raw sewage. (And now to the de facto subsidisation of the most environmentally damaging, rainforest-destroying crop on Earth.)
Badenoch was also very keen to point out that the difference between being part of the Indo-Pacific trade deal, and being part of the European Union, is that “we make the rules and regulations on our standards”.
Obviously this stuff is very basic, and very boring, but, as Ms Badenoch had pointed out only two sentences before, the point of being part of a bloc, of there being “strength in numbers”, is that the big boys dictate their rules and regulations to the others.
Which is why it is, very obviously, much better for a very big, very powerful continent like Europe to work out its regulations and standards collectively, so it can duke it out with China and with America from a position of strength, not weakness.
If this were not a good idea, the single market would simply not exist. Margaret Thatcher would not have created it. Germany, France, Spain, Poland and everybody else would not consider leaving it to be an act of suicidal stupidity.
What “making your own rules and regulations” actually means is staying up til 1am to be told what to do by Malaysia and then selling it as a big win.
Which is, naturally, the point. And it seems unlikely Kemi Badenoch won’t have worked out the real synergy, the real area for “growth”.
It’s not that long ago that international trade secretary Liz Truss spent many months flying around the world, signing cut-and-paste trade deals with whatever country would do them, and not really worrying very much about the impact they might have on, say, British dairy farmers, who’ve been terrified of the prospect of a trade deal with New Zealand since the second Brexit was ever raised.
What that achieved for the UK economy was absolutely zero. But it did get Liz Truss quite a few more followers on Instagram and make her very popular indeed with Tory party members. You may already know how that worked out (although it is conceivably possible that you missed it altogether).
There is absolutely no sane analysis to be found anywhere that any amount of free-trade arrangements with countries very far away can ever possibly make up for the economic damage of Brexit.
The mere act of talking up the marginal gains shows only the scale of the massive losses. Whether Badenoch understands any of that is debatable. Nobody who did would ever have campaigned or voted for Brexit, not unless, like most of them, they simply didn’t care.
Still, there are many in the Tory party who have spent many years, wide-eyed at 2am, with only their bedroom ceiling for company, wondering quite how it is they came to do what they’ve done. At least now they can ring up their mate in KualaLumpur for a bit of therapy, providing they can get them to stop laughing for long enough to listen.