Tensions at the heart of government over the UK’s departure from the EU have resurfaced again, with the prime minister in open disagreement with her finance minister just days after she reprimanded her foreign secretary.
Theresa May’s office issued a quick correction after the Chancellor (finance minister) Philip Hammond said the government would seek only “modest” changes with the European Union.
“While we want a deep and special economic partnership with the EU after we leave, these could not be described as very modest changes,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
On Thursday Hammond told business leaders in Davos that Brexit talks differed from other trade negotiations where divergent economies were brought together. “We are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade between them, and selectively moving them, hopefully very modestly, apart,” the UK finance minister said.
The prime minister’s response followed furious reaction from some pro-Brexit MPs who want the UK to forge a more independent path from the EU in the future, as well as concern among some ministers. Hammond sought to clarify his comments, stressing via Twitter that leaving the single market and customs union “clearly represents change”.
Earlier this week Boris Johnson was reprimanded by government colleagues following reports ahead of a cabinet meeting saying the foreign secretary was going to demand extra money for Britain’s health service – to show he was acting on his EU referendum claim that Brexit could boost NHS spending.
The latest row following Hammond’s comments has brought Conservative divisions over Brexit to the surface once more. Discontent among Eurosceptic Conservative MPs over the UK negotiating stance has been rising, while pro-EU Tories have been disturbed by May’s rebuke to her finance minister.
Brexit hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused British negotiators of being “cowed by the EU”, and also launched a broadside at the Treasury (the government’s finance department) – alleging that it “is now continuing to do its best to obstruct Brexit”.
Earlier this week Rees-Mogg, chided David Davis before a parliamentary committee. The chairman of the Conservatives’ pro-Brexit European Research Group told the Brexit minister that the proposed transition period would make the UK a “vassal state” of the EU, and suggested the country was acting as if “we are lackeys of the European Union”.
In a speech in Middlesbrough in northeast England later on Friday, Davis – the Minister for Exiting the EU – said Britain should be able to negotiate and sign independent trade deals with other countries straight after ‘Brexit day’ at the end of March 2019, although they would not come into force until the end of a planned "implementation" period.
He outlined his view of a post-Brexit transition that was close to the status quo proposed by the EU.
Brexit negotiations are to consider plans for a time-limited transition period of up to two years following the UK’s departure, where Britain is expected to follow many EU rules until a final relationship has been finalised.
But nature of those ties between the UK and the EU during that phase and in the long term are becoming increasingly disputed within Britain’s ruling Conservative Party – while EU leaders have continued to call on the UK government to provide more “clarity” over its plans.
European diplomats said on Friday that fortnightly rounds of talks could begin in Brussels from as early as next week, once EU ministers formally endorse binding instructions.