Battle lines have been drawn ahead of the Conservative conference between MPs and ministers pushing for a “hard Brexit” and those warning of dire economic consequences.
The UK’s exit from the EU will be top of the agenda in Birmingham at the annual gathering, with the Prime Minister leading a session on “Making a Success of Brexit” that will also hear from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis.
However, in the week leading up to the conference, differences within the cabinet and the party over what kind of relationship Britain should seek with the EU have been thrown into sharp relief.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox this week hinted that the UK could leave the 28-nation bloc without a free trade deal in place, instead relying on WTO trade rules that could see tariffs imposed on exports.
He was backed by Johnson, who revealed yesterday that he supports exiting both the European single market and customs union.
He said: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it. I am confident that we can get a deal that is exhilarating for this country, that is a massive opportunity and that liberates us to champion free trade round the world.”
He added that he would seek a deal which would make Britain “the great motor of free trade”.
His colleague Davis, also one of the so-called “Three Brexiteers”, is believed to support leaving the European single market and seeking a free trade deal with the EU.
Their stance was condemned by former minister and pro-EU Tory backbencher Anna Soubry, who said it was “delusional”.
“Liam Fox’s speech this week was very worrying; in fact, it was delusional,” she said.
“How can we have ‘freer’ free trade? Let’s get real, for God’s sake.
“It’s really worrying that these are the senior people who have the future of our country in their hands.”
She added: “May is the voice of sanity, and without her I don’t know where the three Brexiteers would take us.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond has also taken a softer line on EU negotiations, saying the UK would seek a “good Brexit” rather than one that was “hard” or “soft”, and insisting Britain’s economic interests would not be sacrificed for the right political outcome.
“We’ve got to be clear about one thing – there’s an implicit term of the mandate we received from the British people,” Hammond said. “It may not have been stated explicitly but it’s implicit. And that is that they do not want to see the economy suffer.
“They do not want to see jobs lost, they do not want to see standards of living decline.
“So they will expect us to negotiate a solution which delivers the key elements of leaving the European Union, regaining our sovereignty, getting control over our borders – but they will expect us to do all of that in a way that allows the UK economy to go on growing.”