During the Conservative leadership contest, Kemi Badenoch emerged as the surprise favourite of the grassroots. She will now be looking to make her mark as trade secretary in a government set on shaking up the status quo.
For trade, that is potentially good news. After a few years of secretive trade policy that has upset many, including farmers, public health campaigners and even Conservative MPs, this is an opportunity to rethink how trade can strengthen our economy while accelerating progress towards net zero and nature’s recovery.
As she has said little on the subject, it is hard to tell whether Kemi Badenoch will look to reform the government’s approach and move to a more forward looking agenda. Her lukewarm support for net zero when running for leadership sounded some alarm bells, but then previous ministers (such as her supporter Michael Gove) have changed tack when in office and cemented impressive legacies.
Here are three ways Kemi Badenoch could hit the ground running on this agenda.
We need a trade strategy aligned with UK climate and nature objectives
The new secretary of state could signal early on that she intends to do things differently by setting out a formal trade strategy, something her predecessors failed to do. Three select committees (the International Agreements Committee, International Trade Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) have all called for one since the UK left the EU.
This strategy should define how trade policy will align with the UK’s net zero and nature recovery objectives and set a framework for addressing the environment and animal welfare in trade negotiations.
Any trade strategy should also demonstrate how this government intends to use multilateral action to strengthen green trade. This was something Liz Truss and Anne-Marie Trevelyan both explored as secretaries of state, but there is much more that Kemi Badenoch can do to take this forward.
First, the UK could use the WTO’s Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD) to persuade members to agree a set of environmental goods that would enjoy reduced or removed tariffs.
Second, the trade department should continue to support BEIS and the Treasury on the forthcoming consultation on carbon border adjustment mechanisms and product standards, making sure the UK aligns with efforts from the international Climate Club, and elsewhere, to drive progress on climate across the world.
Kemi Badenoch has said before that we should have core standards
Trade agreements have wide ranging implications for the UK’s ability to achieve net zero, for nature’s recovery at home and abroad, and for UK businesses and consumers. New deals should be rooted in high standards.
This is, in fact, one area of trade policy where the incoming secretary of state has made her views plain. She pointed, in a parliamentary statement in 2018, to the importance of ensuring UK farmers can compete on a level playing field. Then, she made it clear that imported products should be produced to the same standards required domestically.
Now, as secretary of state, we hope to see her commit to the core standards that would achieve this aim. Excluding poor quality produce – perhaps produced with pesticides banned here or with clear links to deforestation, for example – would make sure trade agreements have high standards at their heart. This would, in turn, protect our own high environmental and animal welfare requirements, reduce public health risks, support the UK’s transition to a more sustainable farming system and set a great example for ambitious trade negotiations.
What should happen and what does happen are two different things
Scrutiny is an essential way of involving businesses, unions, civil society and members of the public in decision making. Yet the scrutiny process for the UK-Australia trade agreement exposed a woefully inadequate system.
Parliament should have the legal right to see the government’s negotiating objectives and be permitted a meaningful vote on them. It should also be guaranteed updates from government and have privileged access to negotiating texts, so relevant select committees can scrutinise deals throughout the process. After the negotiations, both Houses of Parliament should be guaranteed a debate and vote on trade deals before they are finalised.
The current system looks nothing like this.
The appointment of a new secretary of state is a moment to build a more constructive and meaningful scrutiny process for both parliament and the public. Kemi Badenoch could reset the department’s strained relationship with parliament by recognising the importance of scrutiny, ensuring that the Commons is given the chance to debate new trade deals during the statutory scrutiny period and guarantee a vote for MPs on the content of future deals.
She should build greater public buy-in and craft stronger trade agreements by improving communication, using existing stakeholder forums and consulting civil society on defined negotiating objectives, rather than consulting years in advance on the vague contours of future negotiations.
So, there are plenty of opportunities for the new trade secretary to make her mark. A clear strategy, core standards and better scrutiny of deals would define a more ambitious and open era for the UK’s future trade relationships with the world. We hope Kemi Badenoch will seize this chance for better environmental and economic outcomes at home and abroad.