Is Boris Johnson's government really conservative? In the wake of Boris's plan to break a manifesto pledge and raise tax, it's a question many have been asking – and one that a speech today by International Trade secretary Liz Truss aims to address. Truss – who has been tipped for a possible promotion to the Foreign Office amid rumours of a reshuffle – will use the event at Policy Exchange to outline Britain's new trade policy.
Truss will link the UK's trade policy with the government's flagship domestic agenda: levelling up. She is expected to say that the 'path to economic revival does not lie in retreating and retrenching, but in free trade and free enterprise. British employers can only benefit from free trade by selling their products, innovation, capital, and ideas overseas'.
Her speech will also point to what Truss views as one of the boons of an independent trade policy: lower prices for consumers. She will say:
'Across the world, we see disrupted supply chains, labour shortages and costs rising. Trade has an important role in keeping prices down. Research by Princeton University estimates that the average British consumer would lose a third of their income in real terms without trade. Closing ourselves off to the global market would be even worse for the poorest ten per cent in our society, slashing their income in half. That is because those on lower incomes spend a greater share of their money on imported goods like food and clothing. Make no mistake, protectionism is no way to protect people’s living standards. At this critical time, we need trade to curb any rise in the cost of living through the power of economic openness.'
The comments will cement Truss's position as an advocate for a free market approach to trade. A source close to Truss says:
'Liz believes passionately in an enterprise-led economy, and wants to deliver that by expanding trade with the fastest-growing parts of the world and pursuing a liberalising trade policy. Ultimately she wants an open, free-trading economy that keeps prices low for consumers across the country, including ‘Lidl Tories’ and Red Wall voters who supported us for the first time in 2019. This speech is essentially Liz’s political vision projected through a trade lens.'
For a while now there has been a debate playing out in the party between the so-called 'Waitrose protectionists' and the 'Lidl free marketeers' – with a split between those who wish to prioritise British farmers and those who want their constituents to benefit from cheaper produce on the supermarket shelf. The 'Lidl free marketeers' argue that high food standards can be combined with lower cost products on supermarket shelves.
At a time when there is growing concern in Whitehall that the Tories could face a cost of living crisis by the time of the next election, expect more MPs to speak up and argue that trade can be used to tackle this. It comes as a new group championing such causes – the Free Market Forum – prepares to hold its official launch on Wednesday, with several of the 2019 new intake involved.
As Johnson's government faces accusations from the right of looking more like 'blue Labour' than a Conservative government, there are plenty of red wall MPs keen to make sure the party sticks to its core principles, particularly when it comes to Brexit.