UK must aim high in Brexit trade talks, says May

Mrs May was boosted by the terms of a statement agreed by the EU27 at the European Council summit in Brussels (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Mrs May was boosted by the terms of a statement agreed by the EU27 at the European Council summit in Brussels (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Theresa May has told senior Government colleagues Britain must “aim high” in negotiations with the EU over a post-Brexit trade deal.

But there was no agreement at a meeting of the so-called “Brexit war cabinet” over the kind of relationship Britain should seek with its former partners, with deep divisions emerging over the extent to which the UK should mirror EU regulations after withdrawal.

Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox – alongside Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who backed Remain in the referendum – were understood to be vocal on the need to “diverge” from the EU rulebook to maximise the opportunity for new deals elsewhere in the world.

But it is believed “soft” Brexit backers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd leaned further towards “alignment” with Brussels rules to maintain close ties with the EU in the future.

Ministers did not agree a position but there was discussion of the potential for “gradual divergence” – a step-by-step move away from EU laws after Brexit and the conclusion of a subsequent implementation period in 2021.

The ministers most closely involved with Brexit held their first formal discussion of the preferred “end state” in a 90-minute committee meeting in Downing Street.

Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove arriving in Downing Street for the Brexit Cabinet meeting (Dominic Lipinski/PA) The “end state” will also be discussed in full Cabinet on Tuesday, but insiders suggested there would be several more meetings before a formal Government position is finalised in the early weeks of the new year.

The meeting came shortly before Mrs May briefed the House of Commons on last week’s breakthrough in Brexit talks, which saw the European Council agree that “sufficient progress” had been made on divorce issues to move to negotiations on the transition to a new relationship.

The PM set her face firmly against a second referendum on the eventual outcome, telling MPs it would mean “betraying the British people”.

And she dismissed claims that the Government was planning to ditch the 48-hour limit on the working week enshrined in the EU’s Working Time Directive, insisting she intended to “not only maintain but also enhance workers’ rights”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn urged her to offer a guarantee that “this Government will not seek to use Brexit to water down … working or social rights in this country”.

Mrs May made clear that she expects the UK to leave the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy on the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29 2019.

A senior adviser to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned that Britain could not pursue “sector-by-sector” participation in the European single market.

Stefaan De Rynck also rejected a “buffet-style” transition away from EU membership “where one picks and chooses the bits one likes”, in an event at Chatham House in central London.

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