Hunt: UK will flourish without a Brexit deal
Foreign Secretary tells of his confidence in leaving EU as he admits ambition to be PM
THE UK will “flourish and prosper” even if it walks away from the EU without a deal, Jeremy Hunt insists today. In an interview with The Sunday Tel
egraph, the Foreign Secretary says that while a no-deal Brexit would cause disruption, the country has faced much bigger challenges in its history.
He also admits wanting “a crack” at succeeding Theresa May after the Prime Minister steers the country through what he calls “this challenging next few months”, following her pledge to stand aside before the next scheduled election in 2022.
But he says Mrs May is the only person who can secure the changes necessary for MPs to back her deal, because EU leaders respect her and “know how hard she has been working”.
His comments come amid a highly charged Cabinet dispute over whether a no-deal outcome is preferable to a second referendum or a soft exit.
Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, is separately under attack from Tory Brexiteers for holding talks with his Labour counterpart several times a week, prompting fears that he is discussing a soft option in order to secure Opposition votes.
Mr Hunt’s words are likely to be welcomed by Leavers who insist that a nodeal scenario – the default position if an agreement is not struck by March – would be better for the country than Mrs May’s current agreement.
He acknowledges that the deal on the table risks “anchoring Britain indefinitely in the customs union”.
He adds: “I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper. We’ve faced much bigger challenges in our history.
“But we shouldn’t pretend that there wouldn’t be disruption, there wouldn’t be risk, and there wouldn’t be impact and that’s why as a responsible government we have to make all the preparations necessary.”
Current and former ministers are seeking to position themselves to replace Mrs May in the event of her deal collapsing in the Commons as a result of failing to secure sufficient concessions from Brussels. Yesterday Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary who favours close ties to the EU, said the Government needed to “engage with others and be willing to forge a consensus” in case opposition to the agreement was not overcome. She said that no-deal “mustn’t happen”.
In other developments, senior minis- ters including Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt are believed to be preparing to insist that Mrs May now tells the Civil Service to move Whitehall into “full no-deal planning”. Meanwhile, David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said preparations had been held back by nervousness at the Treasury.
Mrs May also launched an attack on Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, accusing him of undermining the UK’s negotiations and insulting the office he once held by calling for a
second referendum. And the Prime Minister and Mr Hunt were yesterday preparing to call all EU ambassadors into Downing Street next week as part of the Prime Minister’s campaign to seek legally binding assurances that the UK would be able to exit the backstop arrangements in the current withdrawal agreement, which would keep the country in the EU’s customs union.
Ms Rudd, who also indicated she wanted a tilt at the Tory leadership, significantly bolstered her team by hiring Eleanor Shawcross, a former economic adviser to George Osborne, as chief of staff. Ms Shawcross was expected to help oversee the minister’s planned changes to the Universal Credit benefits system.
Last week, Mrs May managed to cling to her job after announcing to her MPs that she would step down before the next election, opening a vacancy that Mr Hunt hints in this newspaper today could come early next year.
Asked whether he was interested in moving into No10, he says: “I think every MP has a corner of their heart that says they would like to have a crack at the top job. I’m no different.
“But I think the first thing is to get us through this challenging next few months and I passionately believe Theresa May is the right person to do that.”
Mr Hunt is expected to be among a series of ministers pushing for more concerted preparations for a no-deal Brexit when the Cabinet meets on Tuesday.
Senior ministers want Mrs May and Philip Hammond to significantly step up plans, partly because some believe that the Government’s only chance of securing changes to the Prime Minister’s deal is if the EU believes there is a serious prospect of her walking away.
Senior figures are expected to call for the Chancellor, who has been repeatedly blamed for holding up full preparations, to unlock new funding for such an outcome.
Mrs Leadsom is believed to want the Government to provide a no-deal update to the Commons each week until exit day.
Mr Davis said: “There are two years of no-deal planning in the works but it has been held up by Treasury and No10 nervousness about going public.
“That means they now have to accelerate the plan to be able to hit the target by the end of March. If they do that, a managed no deal is eminently achievable in the absence of the best outcome, which is a free-trade agreement.”
In August, Mr Hunt said a messy nodeal Brexit would be “a mistake we would regret for generations” but said the UK would still survive and prosper. Since then the possibility of a no-deal outcome has grown significantly and an increasing number of ministers now say it must be avoided at all costs, making Mr Hunt’s insistence today all the more significant.
Last night, Mrs May said: “I am fighting for a good deal for Britain … I have never lost sight of my duty and that is to deliver on the referendum result and to do so in a way that protects British jobs, keeps us safe and protects our precious Union.
“However, there are too many people who want to subvert the process for their own political interests – rather than acting in the national interest.
“For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.
“We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.
“Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for.”
‘For Tony Blair to seek to advocate for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held’