Mark Price, who quit as a government trade minister a fortnight ago, has warned that Brexit will not solve the day-to-day problems that led people to vote to leave the EU, but instead will make them worse.
Lord Price said he was deeply worried that the UK was set to be distracted by Brexit for years rather than addressing the deep underlying problems that led to the vote.
It is the first time the trade minister appointed by David Cameron and reappointed by Theresa May has spoken since his resignation.
Price, a former managing director of Waitrose, was due to pilot the government’s free trade bill through the House of Lords in the spring, but said he was not prepared to make the four-year commitment required to make a success of devising a new trade policy for the UK outside the EU.
Speaking to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association conference, he said he regarded the Brexit vote “as a symptom of people’s concerns about their day-to-day problems. Brexit will not solve those problems.”
Price said: “I think the country is going to be even more disrupted and even more subject to competitive pressures.”
The causes of the public’s discontent were issues such as the digitalisation of clerical jobs, outsourcing of labour, wages being depressed and migrant labour: “All of these things don’t get better with Brexit; in fact, if anything, they get worse.”
He said overall, the advent of a new digital age would turn the migration debate into a red herring. “In a digital age the debate is how do we take labour out, put technology in – all to reduce costs.
“No outcome from Brexit is going to solve those fundamental problems. Brexit is Brexit, but what are we going to do as a country to make sure it is not distracted and solves fundamental problems so that in two years’ time we don’t say: ‘My business is doing no better, public spending is not any greater, I feel under more pressure in my job than I did before, there is more technology in my job than when I protested six months before’?”
Price said he did not see any way back from the referendum vote, but said the only two viable solutions for the UK were to remain fully within the EU, including the single market, or to leave altogether and negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU. He said on the basis of speaking to 16 trade ministers, “there is no compromise”.
“I am now pretty committed to the fact that you cannot go back and therefore we have to think about how we make sure we have the most sustainable economy and society,” he said.
The former minister added: “Brexit is the biggest task facing the country since the second world war. But I think Brexit is a symptom of something else. I think that people voted the way that they did because they wanted to see change. Whether it is Trump in America, Macron in France or Brexit, people are choosing to vote for someone who they think will solve their practical day-to-day issues. In my view Brexit will not solve them.”
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