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 Sunday Telegraph - - Front page - By Ed­ward Mal­nick SUN­DAY PO­LIT­I­CAL ED­I­TOR

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’

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