Liam Fox has been ridiculed over claims that British businesses are harming the economy as they do not want to export their goods abroad.
The International Trade Secretary, who is a passionate supporter of Brexit, said the reluctance among businesses to take advantage of trade deals was hampering efforts to boost the economy after Britain leaves the European Union.
Downing Street gave short shrift to his comments, which come a year after he sparked fury for suggesting businesses were “too lazy and too fat’, with many bosses choosing to spend time on the golf course rather than at work.
In an interview with The House magazine, Dr Fox said: “From Britain’s point of view, our main advantage doesn’t lie in getting more trade deals, it lies in getting more trade.
“So, we need to do an awful lot better with the markets that we already have access to globally, our trading performance still needs to improve, notwithstanding a more than 13% increase in trade in the last year.
“We’re still way behind where our economy needs to be. So, we need to think about how we can make our economy export ready, and more investment ready as well, and how we get more of our companies to think about exporting overseas.
“I can agree as many trade agreements as I like, but if British business doesn’t want to export, then that doesn’t do us any good.”
Asked if the Prime Minister shared his concerns, Theresa May’s spokesman said: “The UK has a good record for exports, we are running successful campaigns to sell more overseas, we are committed to helping British firms take the opportunities that are available both now and after Brexit.”
Business leaders led criticism of the comments from Dr Fox, whose department is esponsible for securing trade deals after Britain leaves the European Union.
Allie Renison, Head of EU and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “Any suggestion that UK businesses are somehow unwilling to export is simply not borne out by the facts. We know that 61% of IoD members, predominantly leading SMEs, export goods and services internationally.
“At the same time, it is clear from recent surveys that while exports have been relatively stable, there has been more of an upsurge over the past 12 months than there has been a slowdown.
“Getting people to export for the first time is always more difficult than helping those who already trade internationally to move into new markets. The Department for International Trade should focus on helping these first-time exporters to understand and mitigate the risks of trading outside the UK.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said the International Trade Secretary was blaming businesses over his failure to deliver on his “Brexit fantasy”.
He said: “Once again Liam Fox is blaming British businesses for his own failings. Not content with calling UK businesses fat and lazy, he’s now accusing them of not wanting to export.
“This is particularly galling for the many businesses that export to Europe and will lose access to the single market because of the extreme Brexit the government is pursuing.
“So far Liam Fox has racked up thousands of air miles without securing a single trade deal. UK businesses shouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that he can’t deliver on his Brexit fantasy.”
And Dinesh Dhamija, founder of Ebookers and a supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, said the “foolish comments” did not reflect the reality.
He said: “British businesspeople I know are desperate to export and open up new markets for their products and services. And they value the fact that two thirds of British exports currently go either to the EU or to countries with which the EU has a trade deal.
“The problem is that Dr Fox’s policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union will make it harder, not easier, for British firms to do business abroad. Barriers to trade with our biggest economic partner – the European Union – will inevitably be bad for business and for our wider economy.”