Business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch gave a defiant speech at the Conservative Party Conference today (2 October), saying she wanted to “set the record straight” on Brexit before listing a series of trade- and business-related achievements under her watch.
She said she wanted to “reject the narrative” of her “political opponents” and “their friends in the media”, which speaks of the UK “like it’s an irrelevant nation”.
She claimed the UK’s post-pandemic recovery had outpaced France and Germany, and cited the recent Make UK data that showed the UK had overtaken France to become the world’s eighth-largest manufacturing nation.
Citing recent data from ONS, she also rejected arguments that Brexit would lead exports to drop “to an all-time low”, saying the country had risen to become the world’s fifth-largest exporter. She added that Brexit did not mean the “end of the City” in reference to arguments that it would lead to London’s financial services sector losing global prominence.
She admitted that leaving the EU has not been “without challenges” but said the government was committed to “working to fix them”, citing prime minister Rishi Sunak’s securing of the Windsor Framework earlier this year, while praising ministers Lord Offord and the Earl of Minto for “lowering export barriers and unnecessary regulations”.
In reference to the UK’s deal to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and in an apparent dig against the UK’s previous membership of the EU, she said:
“We are not just securing increased investment today, we’re delivering long-term economic security through trade. My proudest achievement, with the help of minister Nigel Huddleston, has been securing membership of CPTPP.
“We are joining a club of fast-growing countries committed to free trade. A club with no membership fees, no political union and no free movement of people.”
Election division lines
Amid a backdrop of rife speculation about the timing of next year’s General Election, Badenoch said the Conservatives’ “political opponents are obsessed” with Brexit and accused Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer of not being “someone who believes in the UK’s ability to think for itself”.
“Brexit was the greatest ever vote in confidence in the project [of the] UK, and we will soon be asking the people of this the country to trust that it is safe in our hands,” she said.
In reference to the difficult economic climate, she said “it has been a difficult time to be in government anywhere in the world”. She also praised Sunak for being “brave” by tackling the “lazy consensus on net zero” when he recently changed multiple government policies relating to climate.
Also speaking as the women and equalities minister, she devoted a significant portion of her speech to gender and race issues.
Thin on policy announcements
The speech contained plenty of attacks on the Conservative’s political opponents, largely relating to their alleged pessimism over Brexit, but it was thin on new policy announcements.
Ahead of her speech, Marco Forgione, the director general of the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), told radio station LBC that he wanted to see a “long-term comprehensive business growth plan” including strategies for imports and exports, encouragement for SMEs to trade internationally using e-commerce platforms, and the “greater digitisation of trade documents”, which he claimed could add 1% to UK GDP.
Forgione has since responded to her speech here.
Badenoch’s speech was preceded by the chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s, in which he said “don’t bet against Britain, it’s been tried before and it never works”.
He announced the government is going to raise the national living wage from £10.42 an hour to £11, saying “if you work hard, a Conservative government will always have your back”.
Like Badenoch, he attacked Labour’s economic agenda, saying it would mean “higher taxes, higher mortgages and higher inflation for families”.
He said “nothing hurts families more” than inflation, and that his government’s plan to halve it “is working”.
Other conference news
Former prime minister Liz Truss was also making headlines today, calling on the party to “axe tax, cut bills and build homes” at the launch of the New Conservatives group.
Thérèse Coffey, the security for environment, food and rural affairs, told a Countryside Alliance fringe event that Sunak’s decision to scale back on net zero “just showed we have one of the strongest ever prime ministers thinking about the countryside, which is no surprise, because he is a rural MP”.
“There are some places where it’s just not going to work to have a heat pump at all. So I think the prime minister showed we are listening. We showed that we have acted, because we are rooted in reality,” the Guardian reports her saying.
Claire Coutinho, the new minister for energy security and net zero, said government was taking action to support rural communities with the move to net zero “by making it easier for solar panels to be installed on industrial rooftops, warehouses, car parks and factories.”
She announced that government was “allocating a further £80m to insulate thousands of social homes, saving families on average £240 each year, supporting the most vulnerable, reducing their bills, protecting our environment.”