Theresa May will be forced to show her Brexit hand next week at a meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator as the Prime Minister’s struggle to maintain authority over the process deepened.
The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, accompanying the Prime Minister on a trade mission to China, was forced to deny claims in the media that the UK was preparing to accept continued membership a customs union with EU for goods after Brexit.
At Westminster, the Brexit minister who fuelled claims about ‘rogue’ civil servants in the Treasury seeking to undermine the UK’s exit from the EU was forced to apologise to MPs after his comments were dismissed as false and condemned by Whitehall unions.
In China, where the government said £9bn worth of trade had been concluded, there was confusion as Mr Fox said it was “very difficult to see how being in a customs union is compatible with having an independent trade policy”.
However, a Downing Street spokesman later confirmed the Prime Minister had “an open mind when it comes to these negotiations”.
Following a turbulent week dominated by damaging leaked economic analysis, Mrs May will sit down on Monday with cabinet ministers on the Brexit sub-committee to clarify policy on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Talks in Brussels are set to resume next week, with the tricky item of EU citizens’ rights on the agenda following the Prime Minister’s rejection of a demand for European nationals to enjoy full free movement rights until 2021.
British negotiators will be asked to update the EU on the UK’s vision for the future relationship at the end of the four-day session, on 9 February.
Brexit minister Steve Baker came to the Commons at the start of business on Friday to apologise to MPs.
The storm erupted after leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg asked him to confirm if he had heard from Charles Grant, of the Centre for European Reform think tank, that “officials in the Treasury have deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad”.
Mr Baker told the Commons: “I accept I should have corrected or dismissed the premise of my honourable friend’s question.
“I have apologised to Mr Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man. As I’ve put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard-working civil servants.”
However, Mr Rees-Mogg refused to back down, tweeting yesterday evening that despite the audio recording, “the conclusion must be either the Chancellor or his officials are deliberately trying to frustrate Brexit”.
Questioned on the row, Mrs May said civil servants and ministers were “working together” to deliver Brexit.