Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, made an attempted power grab on key areas of Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office, writing to his colleague and the prime minister, Theresa May, in an effort to wrest control of Britain’s overseas economic policy, a leaked letter has revealed.
Tensions have been escalating between the Foreign Office and Fox’s Department for International Trade, but the former defence secretary’s suggestion has apparently been given short shrift by No 10, the Sunday Telegraph reported.
Within a fortnight of arriving at the newly created department, Fox wrote to Johnson, copying in May, to ask for economic diplomacy – a key function of the Foreign Office – to become part of the remit of his department.
In the letter leaked to the Telegraph, Fox called for a “rational restructuring” of the departments and suggested that his take “clear leadership of the trade and investment agenda,” with Johnson leading on diplomacy and security, including oversight of the intelligence services.
He wrote: “In my first few weeks as secretary of state for international trade, it has become clear to me that existing cross-Whitehall structures have meant that HM government has not taken the holistic approach it might have on trade and investment agendas.”
Economic diplomacy was, he said, “crucial to delivery of the objectives I have been set by the prime minister as international trade secretary”.
The letter went on: “I strongly believe this will be the only chance we get to materially change the approach we take to trade and investment and, as such, would urge you to consider this proposition favourably. If we fail to take this opportunity to restructure now, I feel we will have a suboptimal structure for the future.”
Johnson is said to have firmly rejected the request, but agreed to second several members of staff to the new department to lend expertise.
A government spokesman said it would not comment on leaked documents. “Alongside other departments, the FCO [Foreign Office] are seconding a small number of staff with relevant expertise to the new Department for International Trade,” the spokesman said. “This is all part of the cross-government effort to ensure we make a success of Brexit.”
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said May was to blame for the jostling between the departments. “She created these three separate departments, not because it made sense in terms of coordinating Whitehall’s management of Brexit, but just to buy the loyalty of Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis,” she said.
“Now we see the inevitable dysfunction and turf wars, as they fight between them to grab work that should have been coordinated out of the Foreign Office alone. It is high time that the Tories stopped fighting among themselves, started thinking about the good of the country and focused on clearing up the mess that they have created.”
The leaked letter is the second blunder for Fox’s department in recent days. On Friday, it removed from its website a confusing press release that appeared to announce that the UK would still trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules after leaving the bloc, “until any new trade deals are negotiated”.
Trading under WTO rules would mean that businesses were subject to steep tariffs on goods exported to the EU, including a 10% duty on cars and 12% on clothing, and having no access to the EU’s service markets or financial service markets. The department said the press release had been issued in error.