Britain is “too lazy and too fat” with businessmen preferring “golf on a Friday afternoon” rather than contributing to the country’s prosperity, Liam Fox has said.
The international trade secretary’s remarks, at a Conservative Way Forward event, were recorded by the Times.
Downing Street said he was clearly expressing private views.
Richard Reed, Innocent Drinks co-founder, said Mr Fox “had never done a day’s business in his life”.
Mr Fox, who was a prominent voice within the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, is in charge of negotiating trade deals for the UK once it has left the European Union.
During his speech to activists on Thursday evening he said there needed to be a change in British business culture and said people had got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty.
“This country is not the free-trading nation it once was. We have become too lazy, and too fat on our successes in previous generations,” he said.
He added: “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 – we’ve got to be saying to them if you want to share in the prosperity of our country you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.”
In Mr Fox’s speech he also criticised the “Foreign Office view of the world” for focusing on capital cities and diplomacy rather than business, and claimed his new government department had taken charge of “trading elements”.
The comments follow his letter to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, which was leaked to the press, suggesting British trade would not flourish unless the Foreign Office was reduced to a department focused only on diplomacy and security.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Fox had been expressing his own views at the event, and not the views of the government.
Mr Fox’s own spokesman said the minister was committed to supporting the full range of businesses in the UK so they could best take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit presented.
But Mr Reed, who was also deputy chair of the official Remain referendum campaign, called Mr Fox’s comments “absolutely disgusting”.
“He is a representative of us, of this country, and he turns round and slags us off, calling us fat and lazy,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today. “He’s never done a day’s business in his life.”
“He’s talking about business people here who were absolutely clear in saying that we want, and do, export, and that’s why we do want to remain in the EU… I just think: ‘how dare he talk down the country that he damaged, how dare he’.
“He’s a terrible, terrible voice for British business.”
Mr Reed added that he’d “never played golf in [his] life”.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna said Mr Fox’s comments were “a complete disgrace, coming from the man supposed to be promoting our businesses globally” and UK businesses deserved an apology.
“UK business must have woken up today, read Liam Fox’s comments, and thought with friends like these who needs enemies”, he tweeted.
Pat McFadden, Labour MP and supporter of the Open Britain campaign group pushing for a close relationship with the EU, said he was sceptical about how Mr Fox could fulfil his role.
“If the government doesn’t confirm it supports membership of the single market it won’t serve British business, but that is hardly surprising if ministers can’t even speak up for British business,” he said.
“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.”