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26 JUL 2016

GALLERY VIEW ON APPOINTMENTS

Julian Francis on the creation of the Department for International Trade

D

id you see it? You can be forgiven if you didn’t as it was very quick!

For those of you with eagle eyes- and who were paying attention when the new ministerial appointments were being made will have noticed that Greg Clark was given the wrong job by mistake. 

It was announced on the day that Mr Clark would head up the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and as such he was appointed President of the Board of Trade. Only this was not true because the new International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, should have been the one to hold the title.

Officials only realised their mistake when Mrs May told Parliament in a written statement that Mr Fox's new department would "take on the responsibilities of UK Trade and Investment (and) the relevant trade functions of the former Department for Business Innovation and Skills". This led to some frantic behind-the-scenes activity by civil servants to ensure that the right procedures were met and the Presidency of the Board of Trade could be transferred from Greg Clark to Liam Fox.

So why does it matter? Well the Board of Trade - which is still formally named "The Committee of Privy Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations" - was established in the 17th Century by the King as a rival to Parliament to manage British trade, particularly in the American colonies. It has continued to perform this function ever since and is the sole body responsible for establishing British trading relations. Had the title not been transferred to the new Department for International Trade then it would not have been able to perform the function for which it was created and trade policy would have been set by Greg Clark’s department.

Those of you with long memories will recall that Lord Heseltine chose to be known as President of the Board of Trade when he was appointed to John Major's cabinet in 1992, instead of Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. This was his way of connecting with a long line of predecessors who were seen as the lions of British maritime and trade supremacy.  

William Pitt created the job of president in 1786 as a way to coordinate the work of the board and boost overseas trade to combat the continental blockade of British goods. The parallels with today’s fight with the EU will not have been lost on Liam Fox who no doubt wishes to emulate these by-gone days. 

The board was folded into the modern-day Department of Trade and Industry by Ted Heath in 1970, but this move never sat well with some on the Conservative benches as they believed it demoted the importance of global trade as the basis of British prosperity. Heseltine sought to demonstrate to the backbenches that he was determined to reverse this position but little happened in reality.

So the creation of the new Department for International Trade marks the culmination of an ideological battle in the Conservative Party that is only a little bit older than our membership of the EU itself. It will play well with the shire Tories and is meant to show that the policies of Chatham, Pitt and Canning are back in charge and that the UK now looks to the sea rather than the continent for its future prosperity. 

Such is the importance of a title and a mistaken appointment. 

Julian Francis

Julian Francis

Director of Policy and External Affairs

Julian leads the creation of policy and government engagement strategy at ACE.

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