Trade deals: we are surrounded by talk of them but have we actually started any? Technically, until we exit the EU all our trade agreements are still going to be negotiated and ratified by the EU27. Until we can extricate ourselves from the EU as a whole, we cannot extricate the trade part of it either.

But even with Britain still very much inside the EU trading bloc, there has been nothing since the referendum but talk of all the trade deals the UK is lining up, most prominently the hugely publicised UK-US flagship deal. What evidence do we have for this? Very little – it looks as though these claims of negotiations being underway are based on nothing more than whether Dr Liam Fox has visited that country in the past few months.

Dr Fox testified for the first time in front of the International Trade Committee last week and this question reared up. As Dr Fox rightly made clear, it would be against the national interest if we did not at least start discussions and build those relationships with key future trading partners, even if we cannot formally sign any deals in the interim.

However, there has not been much of an effort on the part of government to dampen down talk of the “12 countries” with which the UK is already in trade talks. The Secretary of State declined to name them, but we all know what some of the high-profile post-Brexit targets are (China, India, Australia). When prompted to discuss what we had actually done for these trade talks, apparently already in process, his answers were disappointing. It would appear to consist of chairing JETCO (Joint Economic Trade Committee) meetings, which UK Trade Ministers have attended and chaired for years, and setting up many (many) “trade working groups”. If this sounds like some well-intentioned gloss to you, then you would be right.

While any negotiation will have a scoping stage and a general look at what both parties broadly seek to gain from the agreement, it is a stretch to claim that what is happening at the moment is the formal start of any future trade deal.

In fact, we would not want formal negotiations to start now, not when we have so far to go to build up the resource and skills needed to run a successful negotiation team. The Brexit negotiations effectively put a pause button on what the Department of International Trade can do and this is a breathing space the UK desperately needs. Dr Fox and his team have been working extremely hard to ensure that they are ready when the time comes to start dealing with the world; setting up an academy to train civil servants in trade negotiations, increasing head count in their trade policy team from 40 to over 350 by 2018 and reaching out to friendly countries to share their expertise. But they have a serious mountain to climb.

By talking up what the government has “achieved” now rather than painting a realistic picture of the task ahead, the DIT is essentially over-compensating for the present situation, which makes achieving any quick concrete results currently impossible. Sadly, it fits the government’s pattern. Dr Fox, in another example, said he did not regret any measures that counter the “black propaganda” used by some to undermine the Referendum result.

Is it really so bad to give hope to those concerned at how all these trade opportunities and dangers will play out in reality? Of course not. But there is a danger that Dr Fox’s glossy optimism is not only fooling people into believing the UK will have trade deals signed the moment we leave the EU, but giving the impression trade negotiation is quick and easy.

For reference, the recently signed Canada-EU FTA (CETA) took seven years to conclude. Even when there are only two countries as signatories such as in the Canada-South Korea FTA signed in 2014, it still took 14 rounds of talks and nine years from the point at which discussions began. 

The Department of International Trade has a herculean task ahead of itself and will need all the support it can get for the long haul. By boasting of early, non-existent, successes they not only risk squandering the goodwill of would-be supporters, but also distract from the challenges they are facing and the hard work they are doing.

By trying too hard to counter this “black propaganda”, Dr Fox and his team are setting themselves up to fail in the eyes of the public.