“This country is not the free-trading nation that it once was,” Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox told a reception for Conservative activists in the House of Commons on Thursday.
“We have become too lazy, and too fat on our successes in previous generations,” he added, saying executive were more interested in “playing golf” than striking deals.
Fox will play a key role in establishing Britain’s role on the world stage as it leaves the European Union, but his comments are likely to cause outrage among the business community that he represents.
The trade minister warned that the arduous task of negotiating trade deals with international partners in the wake of Brexit would be a waste of time “if we don’t have the exporters to fill those markets”.
“People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty,” he said, according to the Times.
“Companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon.”
The newly-appointed minister, who sits on the right wing of the Tory party, said he would be happy to open all industrial sectors to international competition, adding “we must be unapologetic free traders”.
Fox was a leading member of the campaign to leave the union, but has already locked horns with Foreign Office chief Boris Johnson as government departments jostle for position ahead of the daunting job of leaving the EU.
Fox had already told Johnson that the Foreign Office should not interfere with trade issues, and on Thursday criticised the “Foreign Office view of the world” that focussed on diplomacy rather than business.
Labour MP Pat McFaddon called into question Fox’s ability to carry out his role.
“It is hard to see why the government’s trade minister is attacking British business when he is supposed to be promoting the UK as a great place to do business,” he said.