Former Brexit minister Oliver Letwin: UK has no trade negotiators

Ex-Cabinet Office minister defends lack of contingency planning – but acknowledges dearth of trade deal expertise

By Josh May

15 Jul 2016

The government does not have a single trade negotiator, former minister who was in charge of the Whitehall unit charged with preparing to leave the European Union has revealed.

Oliver Letwin, who yesterday left his post as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, explained that all British officials with such expertise would need to be recruited from the EU.

“We don’t have trade negotiators because the trade negotiating has been going on in the EU,” he explained.

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“[There are] quite a number but they’re employed there and it’s up to them whether they’re recruited in Whitehall. There are obviously very experienced trade negotiators elsewhere in the world as well.”

Leading figures in the pro-Brexit side had prioritised new trade agreements with nations outside the EU during the referendum campaign, and Theresa May has now set up a new Department for International Trade under Liam Fox.

Earlier this month then-business secretary Sajid Javid announced the Government would be hiring another 300 specialist staff to work on trade.

Letwin described the new trade department as an “excellent plan”, and said trade negotiators would be needed for both that and the Brexit department to be headed by David Davis.

David Cameron set up the ‘Brexit unit’, overseen by Letwin in the Cabinet Office, after the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June.

The former prime minister has faced criticism for failing to do more to prepare the government for the prospect of Brexit, but Letwin defended the last administration.

“What no one could do, of course, in advance was work out all the things which we’re going to have to work out over the next year, 18 months, two years,” he said.

He also refused to be drawn on how long it could take the UK to extricate itself from the EU: “We’ll only know as we go along how tricky this turns out to be.”

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