Second acts in British politics are vanishingly rare these days and Liam Fox, restored to the cabinet by Theresa May, is determined to make the most of his. We meet at his central London flat at half-past four on Sunday afternoon and even then the International Trade Secretary is beavering away: preparing for his meetings at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva the following day and finishing off his conference speech. He offers us a drink — red wine? pink champagne? — but pours a cup of tea for himself.
Fox, as ever, is full of fizz. He clearly loves being back at the centre of things, and immediately starts contrasting Theresa May’s premiership with that of David Cameron. ‘We think similarly,’ he says. He enthuses about her ‘meritocratic’ agenda and how she is handling the job: ‘Her whole approach to government is much more methodical.’ Fox is a former GP and says she ‘fits in with what I like to think of as the “doctor test”. First of all, let’s see what the problem is. Secondly, a proper analysis. Thirdly, let’s look at the options. And fourthly, let’s work through them to see what’s the best.’
Another difference is that May includes the cabinet and its many committees in her decision-making. ‘The average reading for any of these big committees is now a full four or five hours the night before,’ he says. He admits that ‘the meetings are longer, everything’s longer’, and his ministerial red box is ‘considerably heavier’ than it was under Cameron. But this, he explains, is because arguments get played out. ‘It’s not a question of everyone having a say, it’s everyone being in the debate.’
Knowing how sensitive No. 10 is on the subject, Fox is careful not to get into too many Brexit specifics. He says he’s relaxed about when to trigger Article 50, the two-year notice period (‘it’s more important to get a good future model than to get it quickly’), but he does predict that Britain will have ‘left the EU before we get to a general election’. He’s dismissive of George Osborne’s idea of waiting until after the German elections next September to trigger Article 50. ‘If you don’t want to leave, you can always find reasons not to do it,’ Fox says. He points out that European electorates will have more to worry about than Brexit when they go to the polls. ‘The Germans have got a lot more to think about in their election than that. I think that the migrant crisis, French economic crisis, potential Italian banking crisis will be much further up their agenda.’ Fox is almost certainly right about that, but you can imagine the embassy in Berlin swallowing hard at such straight talk.
A few weeks ago, his straight talk to a private meeting of Conservative MPs made the headlines. Just 11 per cent of British companies export, he told them, and he wondered aloud if this country and its businesses had become ‘too lazy and too fat’. His critics thought he was talking Britain down and being rude to business. He sees it as the administering of hard truths. ‘As a country, we have become too easy with the idea that the world owes us a living. The world doesn’t owe us a living. And we’ve just now got to probe all the areas where we could be making changes. Government, the financial sector, culture, all of them will have to play a part. Because one thing’s for sure, we can’t continue with the trajectory we’ve got now, falling behind with exports as a proportion of our GDP.’ Ministers should be able to make such points to MPs, he says, without being accused of verbal treason. ‘It may well be that from now on all politicians simply use prepared remarks and we don’t do spontaneous,’ he says. ‘And the press will be poorer for it and our public discourse will be poorer for it.’
Many Brexiteers think it’s obvious that Britain would use its freedom to cut tariffs, quotas and trade barriers, but many Tories are worried about the effect of cheap imports. How does he feel when he sees Conservative MPs pressing Theresa May to keep tariffs up to protect British farmers?
He pauses. ‘Protectionism never works in the long term. Never. It always ends up disadvantaging the most vulnerable. The Tory party does not need a lesson in this: look at the Corn Laws. The party almost tore itself apart by taking the side of working people against the big farmers on the basis that it would create inequality in society, it would be protectionist and it would keep on pushing prices of basic foodstuffs up.’
The Tories will maintain farming incomes, he says. But with a caveat: ‘Whether you maintain them primarily as agricultural management and stewardship is a different matter.’
Even if Britain hadn’t voted for Brexit, Fox says, our exporting problem and the massive trade deficit would have to be confronted. ‘That’s even before you take into account the potential effect of the contagion we might get from say, a couple of Italian banks going down.’
And that’s not all. The European Union, he says, is in terrible shape. ‘The architecture is beginning to peel away. It’s going to sacrifice at least one generation of young Europeans on the altar of the single currency, and you can only rip out the social fabric from so much of Europe before it starts imploding. That’s the problem with the European Union. And with Britain out of it, they’re still going to have to confront exactly the same problems.’
It’s undeniable, he says, that reformers in the EU will struggle without Britain. ‘I guess Germany worries, because we were their main allies in bringing some economic rigour to the system. If I were a German politician I would be worried that, without Britain, Germany has the potential to become the greatest ATM in global history.’
With such turbulence abroad, he says, Theresa May is perfect for Downing Street. ‘You couldn’t have someone at a time like this going into No. 10 who didn’t have any experience of the security services or any experience of the dangers of the world outside. This is not a time to learn on the job.’ He says he admires May for her certainty, thoroughness — and something else. ‘One of Theresa’s great strengths is discretion,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’m hoping to learn it.’