A free trade deal with China may be “some time away”, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, has said in Beijing, while admitting the UK is still able to increase trade with a non-EU country while it remains in the customs union.
Asked when Britain would be able to say there was a China trade deal in the works, Fox said: “We haven’t got to Brexit yet of course and that may be some time away if we’ve got an implementation period, but what we’re doing is to ensure that when we have economic freedoms we can take advantage of them.
“We’ve set up a trade and investment review with China to take a look at the options we have in terms of our trading relationship and agreements once we have left the EU.”
Asked if Britain could still increase trade despite remaining inside a customs union with the EU, Fox said: “Self-evidently, we can do it in a customs union because we can do it now while we are still in the EU,” he said.
Speaking to Sky News, Fox said the UK could increase trade in the short term, including opening up the markets for UK agricultural produce including beef, with hopes to lift the ban which has existed since the BSE crisis within the next six months.
As Theresa May prepared to meet with President Xi Jinping, Fox praised the prime minister’s achievements on the visit and said Conservative MPs at home making noise about her leadership should pay more attention to her actions on the world stage.
Fox gave May a cautious endorsement, telling ITV he would back the prime minster “as long as she wants to lead my party”. Overnight the conservative Spectator magazine led its front page with a story showing May standing alone, with the headline Lead or Go.
May told reporters en route to China she was “not a quitter” and intended to fight the next election in 2022 despite mounting public criticism from some Brexiters as well as more liberal Conservative backbenchers who have expressed concern about what they see as a lack of bold leadership on housing, education and the NHS.
Fox said that was not the image Chinese leaders had of May. “They are looking at performance, they are looking to see what the UK is doing and they look at the prime minister in a different way than some of, let’s say, the internal tea room discussions in the UK do,” he told the BBC.
“I sometimes wish that first of all people could see the prime minister the way that she’s seen in other countries, in terms of the vision that she’s put forward for Britain, and secondly I wish they could see Britain in the way that the rest of the world sees us and not some of the internal commentators in the UK.”
Fox said May’s achievements included an agreement to open up the Chinese market for more British financial services, a sector where a billion pounds’ worth of deals had been signed.
Companies whose bosses accompanied the prime minister on the visit had signed deals including £750m for BP, while Chinese e-commerce sellers had signed up to sell £2bn worth of UK goods over the next two years, Fox said.
May was due fly to Shanghai on Thursday evening after a tea ceremony and formal dinner with President Xi and his wife, Madame Peng, as well as her husband Philip.
Discussions are set to focus on foreign policy and security, especially North Korea, though May has pledged to raise concerns about the situation of democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as human rights in mainland China.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot in Beijing, for theguardian.com on Thursday 1st February 2018 06.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010