A new Trade Secretary: what’s next?

Ciaran Gill analyses what Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s appointment as the new Secretary of State for International Trade means for the UK’s trade activities, particularly in relation to its ‘green trade’ ambitions.

In a week of political intrigue, Boris Johnson’s ministerial reshuffle saw Elizabeth Truss MP move from the role of Secretary of State for International Trade to Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. Truss held the trade brief for over two years and has been replaced in this role by Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP. In her time as Secretary of State, Truss oversaw the UK’s signing of an unprecedented 60 trade deals. The question therefore is how will the passing of the mantle impact the UK’s international trade agenda?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed since 2015, has recently held several ministerial positions. As well as being the last Secretary of State for International Development (prior to the Department for International Development being subsumed into a beefed-up Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) Trevelyan most recently held a ministerial role in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Up until her promotion, Trevelyan served as Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth. Unsurprisingly, her primary focus at BEIS was (you’ve guessed it) the energy industry.

It says something about the visibility of Trevelyan’s new role, however, that her move has led journalists to uncover previous tweets that she had posted – around a decade ago – calling into question the existence of global warming. In a tweet from 2012, for example, Trevelyan stated that the results of one study amounted to “clear evidence that the ice caps aren’t melting after all, to counter those doom-mongers and global warming fanatics”. In another tweet Trevelyan stated that “we aren’t getting hotter, global warming isn’t actually happening”. When questioned about these tweets the Prime Minister issued his support for the new minister by stating that “people change their minds and change their views and that’s very important too”.

As part of Trevelyan’s many new responsibilities, she will also take up the role as President of the Board of Trade, which meets quarterly and seeks to promote regional points of view during the development of UK trade policy. Over the summer the Board published its report on ‘Green Trade’, which set out how the UK can utilise international trade to increase export opportunities for its green industries. “The UK”, it stated, “can spearhead the global green transition by developing innovative green technologies to export to the world and by doubling down on its success as a global hub for green finance”.

While her previous tweets suggest that the new President’s views may not be wholly aligned to the Board’s, the Prime Minister is adamant that her views on climate change have since changed. In theory, the Board’s agenda should therefore be unaffected.

Having backed him in the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, Anne-Marie Trevelyan is a committed ally of the Prime Minister. Even if she may still harbour an ambivalence over the need to set net-zero goals, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that she will go along with the Prime Minister’s green agenda. This agenda seeks to promote the continued development of the UK’s green trade capabilities. As the UK forges a new ‘Global Britain’ identity, international trade and decarbonisation are two pieces of the puzzle that need to be fitted together, especially in this year of COP26.

The UK’s trade activities, however, despite the rhetoric contained in publications such as the ‘Green Trade’ report, have already attracted some criticism on climate grounds. Only this month, it was reported that ministers, at the request of Canberra, agreed to take out from the text of the UK-Australia trade deal references to the specific temperature commitments contained within the Paris Agreement.

Trade negotiations are difficult. The UK is seeking to secure further trade deals with countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Mexico and is hoping to eventually join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. All eyes over these next months, therefore, will be on the new Secretary of State to ascertain whether she will be able (and eager) to realise the Government’s vision of using trade to advance the cause of global decarbonisation. This, after all, may determine the Prime Minister’s ultimate success in creating a green ‘Global Britain’.