The government announced a two-year extension of tariffs on steel imports this week – despite admitting that the move “departs from our international legal obligations” under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Mr Fox believes that slapping “protectionist” tariffs on steel imports will put Britain on a collision course with allies and damage the country’s international reputation.
The ex-minister said it was time for Mr Johnson’s government to “show leadership on free trade” rather than “damaging our global reputation and putting other sections of our economy at risk”.
The prime minister should ditch the tariffs “if this is not to be a Conservative government in name only”, the former trade secretary wrote in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph.
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan told the Commons earlier this week that the UK would be extending protections for five types of steel products.
Following Brexit, the UK rolled over EU quotas and tariffs on 10 categories of steel until mid-2024. The government has now decided to extend temporary safeguards on five other categories until the same date.
Ms Trevelyan said the national interest “requires action to be taken which may be in tension with normal rules and procedures”.
Labour backed the “extension of safeguards”, saying it would come as a welcome relief to the British steel sector.
But several leading Tory MPs have raised concerns about protectionism and tit-for-tat tariffs being imposed on the UK by countries likely to lose out.
“Retaliatory measures by those countries whose exports are hit are likely to impact on other areas of the UK economy,” warned Mr Fox.
He added: “Choosing protectionism is one of the worst decisions taken by this government … We need to find another answer to the problem if this is not to be a Conservative government in name only.”
Mr Johnson had last year backed Dr Fox as a candidate to become director-general of the WTO, but the Brexiteer’s bid to lead the international trade body was unsuccessful.