Chancellor Philip Hammond said a no-deal Brexit would be a “betrayal” of business and the business minister Richard Harrington challenged the Prime Minister to sack him over his vocal warnings about the economic damage from leaving the EU without an agreement.
On Thursday evening pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who is reported to be the key figure in a group of pro-EU ministers meeting to plot an alternative to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme and refused three times to rule out quitting the Government if there was a no-deal scenario.
In the starkest warning from business about the impact of a no-deal Brexit, manufacturing giant Airbus said it would shift production out of the UK. A string of union bosses who visited Downing Street for talks on Mrs May’s Plan B for EU withdrawal also urged the Prime Minister to take no-deal off the table or ask for an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation period.
Airbus chief executive Tom Enders branded the Government’s handling of EU withdrawal a “disgrace” and said the company could pull out of the UK if Brexit undermined its ability to compete.
Mr Enders said the UK’s multibillion-pound aerospace sector is “standing at a precipice”.
He said: “Brexit is threatening to destroy a century of development based on education, research and human capital. If there’s a no-deal Brexit, we at Airbus will have to make potentially very harmful decisions for the UK.”
Airbus senior vice-president Katherine Bennett later said the Government had asked the company to “make clear the potential impact of a no deal”.
But a Downing Street spokeswoman later insisted there was “no knowledge in Number 10” of any request. The Airbus comments came after P&O’s reflagging of its fleet of ships to Cyprus and Sony’s announcement it is moving its European HQ to the Netherlands.
Commons Brexit committee chairman Hilary Benn warned of a “slow haemorrhage” of business from the UK.
Mr Harrington said he was “delighted” Mr Enders was “telling it like it is”.
The minister told an audience of German industrialists that crashing out without a deal would be “a disaster for business”, adding: “I really don’t believe in this idea. I am very happy to be public about it and very happy if the Prime Minister decides I am not the right person to do the business industry job.”
The Number 10 spokeswoman said Mrs May continued to have full confidence in Mr Harrington, adding: “The Prime Minister expects ministers to be focused on getting the Government’s deal through.”
Asked if the PM was still in charge, the spokesman added: “Of course.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hammond told a business audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos that a no-deal Brexit would be “a betrayal of the promises that were made” to voters in the 2016 referendum.
Addressing a CBI lunch in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Hammond said “the only credible and sustainable solution” for the Government was to deliver EU withdrawal in a way which protected the economy.
The Chancellor said: “In the 2016 referendum, a promise was made to the majority who voted for Brexit – that they were voting for a more prosperous future.
“Not leaving would be seen as a betrayal of that referendum decision. But leaving without a deal would undermine our future prosperity and would equally represent a betrayal of the promises that were made.”
Emerging from Downing Street after talks with Mrs May, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said she had not received the guarantees unions were seeking on jobs and workers’ rights. “The Prime Minister should do the right thing and take no-deal off the table so that genuine dialogue can take place,” she said.
Mrs May should “stop listening to the bad boys at the back of the class” who play down the risks of departure without agreement, she said.
The PM invited a string of union leaders to Number 10 as part of her bid to get widespread political backing for a Brexit plan that could command a majority in the Commons after her deal was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs last week.
Unite leader Len McCluskey said he told her companies were putting investment on hold because of uncertainty over the outcome.
Urging Mrs May to extend Article 50 by three months, Mr McCluskey said: “I cannot conceive any prime minister taking us out of Europe with a no-deal. It would be catastrophic.”
Unison’s Dave Prentis said a no-deal Brexit “must be avoided at all costs”, while GMB general secretary Tim Roache said: “We can’t carry on like this. As this crisis worsens, pretending nothing has changed is simply not good enough.”