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Building "Brand Britain": The Anne-Marie Trevelyan Interview

10 min read

When she was two years old, Anne-Marie Trevelyan was given a T-shirt that said “The Boss” on it. “For reasons that were self-evident, my mother says,” she says with a grin, describing herself as a “headstrong” only child, raised in south-west London by her mother after her father died when she was two.

This obstinate approach has stayed with her. “I enjoy nothing better than kicking a door in and getting something to be fixed when it should work.”

Unlike her predecessor as International Trade Secretary, Trevelyan, 52, doesn’t gravitate towards the political spotlight – her Instagram account has more photos of her adopted county of Northumberland than carefully posed shots with international leaders. Her staff say she prefers to keep her head down and get on with things; “there is a reason” it is hard to find information about her personal life, she says.

She is funny too, smiling broadly and joking through most of our time together. She even pretend-growls at the curtains in the Churchill Room in the Old Admiralty Building, now home to the Department of International Trade (DIT), when I point out they’re Liberal Democrat yellow.

Trevelyan’s office, with views over Horse Guards Parade, is adorned with Union and national flag cushions (although she is still looking for a Northern Ireland flag in cushion form to complete the set).  Indeed, she is the only Cabinet minister to have her own flag: the flag of the President of the Board of Trade, a title dating back to the 1670s. It gives her the right to commandeer any navy ship, she tells The House, eyes twinkling. “It’s just the coolest thing ever.”

The building holds the Government Art Collection, and Trevelyan is also very fond of the portrait of the Queen which hangs on her office wall, and is keen to get a photograph in front of it. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” she confides, before gleefully telling the story of how she told the Queen she was “our best brand, our best advocate”. “She just responded, ‘oh really?’” Trevelyan says, complete with impression of Her Majesty. “Oh, I just love her.”

Building “Brand Britain” is a key part of Trevelyan’s role as International Trade Secretary, although she says our national profile is already very strong. “This is the best job… It’s literally cheerleading for the UK’s goods and services, what is not to love?

“We have some of the best services provision, creativity, and we make some of the finest food and drink, engineering, in the world, everybody wants it. And in the work that DIT can now do, since Brexit and the freedoms that we have, we can open doors for all these businesses to find new homes.

“I get to go around, say ‘now, I know you love our stuff and I know you buy it, but, actually, it could be really so much better.’ Let’s think about how, whether [that be] a free trade agreement (FTA) or a plethora of other new tools, to unlock those market barriers that are making it hard for British businesses to invest, and… how foreign investment [can] come in and invest in the UK, in order to help us to grow our own economy.”

Post-Brexit, international trade deals have had some bad headlines, particularly when it comes to food. Last month, Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers Union, told The House the government’s lauded UK-Australia FTA “gave the most prized food market in the world over for nothing”. However, Trevelyan insists it is a “very robust deal for farms,” with three layers of safeguards.

“There isn’t any great risk that a surge of shipments of Australian beef could turn up. If that were to happen – which I genuinely don’t think it will; Australia is mostly sending … its protein to China and the Indo Pacific where it gets really high prices – we’ve got these safeguards in place, which effectively can halt the market flows while everyone looks at whether there’s unfair activity going on.

“There have been real concerns coming from the farming community and Australia was the first from-scratch deal we did so everybody didn’t quite know what it was going to look like. This is the first time we’ve been able to do this in 50 years. No [imported] food is going to be sold in British shops that doesn’t meet our food safety standards. It’s just not. So no one should be worried about that.”

You can’t say no to Michael Gove, you never can.

Trevelyan also downplays concerns about undercutting. “The British love to eat British meat,” she says – she tries to buy British whenever she can. “The British market for amazing British produce is strong and will continue to be strong.”

As an adopted northerner, Trevelyan sees trade and exporting as being intrinsically tied into the levelling up agenda, ensuring businesses across the country are encouraged to export and create economic growth.

Trevelyan moved to Northumberland in 1996 after marrying her ex-husband. While she describes herself as “a helpful local person” in her local Berwick-upon-Tweed Conservative Association, her focus then was on building her career as an accountant, rather than politics.

Then David Cameron became leader in 2005. Michael Gove, who had just been elected – and who she knew from her time at Oxford Polytechnic while he was at the University (she used to go to the Oxford Union and listen to the debates) – sent Trevelyan a text saying it was their generation’s turn and imploring her to stand.

“I said, ‘Michael, I’ve got two small children. I’m in the north-east, I’m helping run two businesses’… but you can’t say no to Michael, you never can,” she says. “I thought I’d never get through the candidates’ list. I don’t know why I thought that.”

When she did get through, she insisted she would stand only in the north-east, happy to run in a “no-hoper”. She was selected as Berwick-upon-Tweed’s candidate for the 2010 election; the incumbent Lib Dem MP, Sir Alan Beith, had held the seat since 1973, and she didn’t get much help from CCHQ. After reducing Beith’s majority from 8,632 to 2,690, he announced he would be standing down in 2015, and she took the seat in that election.

“Northumberland wasn’t even on Whitehall’s lips; it just didn’t exist. One of my first challenges when I first got elected in 2015 was to say Berwick-upon-Tweed a lot,” says Treveylan, describing the focus the 2015 Tory intake managed to give rural policy as “really, really energising.”

She recounts joking with Philip Hammond when he was chancellor that the entire border with Scotland was now Tory after 2015. “He said, ‘well, now all you need to do is work your way down and make the whole of the North blue’. And I said, ‘alright, you’re on’.”

Never given a ministerial role under Theresa May, her ascent under Boris Johnson has been rapid, if slightly erratic. Trevelyan was first appointed as a junior minister at the Ministry of Defence when Johnson moved into No 10 in July 2019, and then became secretary of state for international development the following February. Her department was subsumed into the Foreign Office just seven months later in September 2020, leading to her exiting the Cabinet. That November 2020, she was appointed UK International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience for the COP26 Presidency, and became minister for clean growth at the beginning of 2021. In September 2021, she re-entered the Cabinet in her current job.

We want to break down protectionist barriers and help the rest of the world see and trust in the value of free trade.

Trevelyan is passionate about linking green growth in northern areas with trade and wants to encourage foreign investment into Britain’s green agenda. “Clearly, you’d also want to export those brilliant cables, blades, services and skills [built in the UK] to other countries as well as being part of the big green revolution,” she says. “Where you’ve got foreign investment into a business, you have better profitability, higher wage rates, and an energy to export again. So that means that there’s this multiplier effect to having this cycle of real openness.”

“We want to break down protectionist barriers and help the rest of the world see and trust in the value of free trade.”

Trevelyan travelled heavily ahead of COP, and says it was “just extraordinary. Everywhere we went, they wanted more British, they wanted to be more connected. They were so excited that we were free to be the UK and they wanted to have stronger and close links. Pick any country, big, small, island state.”

What about the United States? I ask. A deal has been on the government’s wish-list for many years, but under President Joe Biden, negotiations for a federal deal haven’t even started.

“Across the US, absolutely,” she says. “I think the White House has this inward looking domestic, urgent agenda that Biden wants to bring to [fruition]. But across the US from businesses, business councils, governors at a state level, [there is] huge engagement… because, actually, when we get back to the FTA conversation, where obviously quite lot of work was done with Trump’s administration anyway, we will need all those voices to be in sync. It’s turning it on its head effectively and doing all the groundwork first.”

Priorities for this year include deals with Canada, Mexico, and India – a famously protectionist country when it comes to trade. In particular, some Tory backbenchers have been worried by the Indian government’s demand for more visas for Indian nationals to study and work in the UK as part of any deal. However, Trevelyan plays a straight bat, saying that this doesn’t sit within her remit: “Trade deals are about trade. Immigration issues are dealt with by the Home Office.”

Another concern of Conservative backbenchers is imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where there have been reports of forced labour camps for the persecuted Uyghur Muslims. The US has recently banned imports of goods from the region – will the UK be following suit?

“The Foreign Office obviously drives and leads on this front, and the Foreign Secretary and her [predecessor] have been incredibly robust on that,” Trevelyan says. “There’s a whole series of work going on and that continues. Businesses have a very strong series of responsibilities to demonstrate that they’re not importing goods from places that are using forced labour. I am, where I’m responsible at the WTO [World Trade Organisation], doing a lot of work, particularly with the US, on those questions of forced labour more widely.” She is “very proud” of British consumers, she says, who have a tendency to use their pounds to boycott unethical practices.

As we meet just a few hours ahead of the publication of the Sue Gray update on her investigation into parties in Downing Street, trade concerns are not the only matters occupying Tory MPs – so does Trevelyan fancy a shot at the top job?

She laughs again. “Oh, no thank you. One hundred per cent definitely not. I’m very happy being third in the rankings of the ConservativeHome [net Cabinet satisfaction] polls, that works for me.” A few days later it emerges that she has slipped to fourth place. It doesn’t seem likely she’ll mind too much.

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