As members of the British cabinet go, Anne-Marie Trevelyan is about as low-key as you can get. Her public profile is close to nil – though among Conservative Party loyalists, those who have heard of her, she’s well regarded.
The visit she’s due to make to Delhi next week (12-13 Jan) is one of the most important by a UK politician for almost a decade.
Last September, Trevelyan was appointed by Boris Johnson as International Trade Secretary, in charge of negotiating all the deals which are supposed to ensure that Brexit, Britain’s departure from the EU, is a rip-roaring success.
Brexiteers used to loudly insist that once out of the European Union’s clutches, a newly resurgent Britain would be able to hoover up free trade deals with A-team trading nations around the world. It hasn’t panned out that way.
So there’s a lot riding on the talks between Delhi and London on a Free Trade Agreement, which formally gets underway with Ms Trevelyan’s mission to India.
So far, Britain has done fresh deals with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. But the big prize – an agreement with the United States – isn’t close and may never be achieved. Brexit hasn’t invigorated Britain’s trading performance in the way that its advocates expected – indeed, in economic terms, it’s been a flop.
In spite of all the talk about closer economic ties between India and Britain, there’s been limited progress.
It’s almost nine years since David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, led a delegation of business leaders to India. That delivered lots of goodwill and friendly words, but not much else.
Now the urgency for London to secure a wider-ranging trade deal is much greater and the auguries are good.
Trevelyan’s predecessor as Trade Secretary, Liz Truss – now promoted to Foreign Secretary – put a lot of effort into preparing the ground for formal negotiations with the Indian government.
India’s Commerce Minister, Piyush Goyal, has also indicated a willingness to get a deal done.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the main employers’ organisation, is talking up the chances of a deal. “I am excited by the prospect of FTA talks with India beginning in earnest,” declared the CBI’s president, who just happens to be ‘king Cobra’ Lord Karan Bilimoria.
“The UK and India share a special and deep-rooted relationship and should use this to its advantage to strike an ambitious trade deal that delivers for business.”
While a lot of the media focus has been on the likelihood of India cutting its swingeing import duties on British (OK, Scotch) whisky, that is in commercial terms (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) small beer.
Much more valuable will be British access to the services and technology sectors in India. Delhi would benefit from a closer tie-up with one of the west’s largest economies, not least to keep pace with China’s increasing commercial power.
“It won’t be plain sailing to conclude a deal,” says a longstanding London-based observer of India-UK trade ties.
“But there seems to be political will on both sides and a good rapport. India seems really up for this."
There are some irritants that need to be resolved. Indian diplomats in London have for years insisted that Britain needs to have a more liberal visa regime for Indian students and skilled workers. That was partly addressed when Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi held a ‘virtual’ summit last May which, as well as setting the goal of doubling bilateral trade within a decade, eased visa restrictions for students and young professionals in particular.
In the last few days, there have been suggestions that Britain might make further changes – issuing more visas, reducing the exorbitant visa fees, and allowing those on student visas more opportunity to work in the UK – as a sweetener towards a wider trade deal with India. That seems eminently sensible.
But immigration is a touchy issue within Britain’s governing party. A prominent Conservative MP has warned sternly against making it easier for Indian nationals to get visas.
“Working-class voters who voted Brexit did not vote to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world,” Sir Edward Leigh declared in Parliament this week. He called on Boris Johnson to “convince us that he is determined to connect to our supporters and control immigration."
These right-wing anti-immigration advocates have an ally at the top of government. Among those reported to be resisting a more generous visa regime for Indian nationals is the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose own parents are Gujaratis who came to Britain from Uganda in the 1960s.
That’s politics for you!
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)