Mixed messages from Theresa May and Liam Fox on customs union after Brexit
2 February 2018, 07:51
Theresa May and her International Trade Secretary have given mixed messages over whether Britain could be involved in a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
Speaking on the final leg of her trip to China, the PM did not rule out striking a deal for frictionless trade with the bloc.
She was asked on Sky News whether the £9bn of deals struck during the three-day trip was "living evidence" that "you can do loads more trade with China without doing a free trade agreement and therefore we can stay very closely aligned with the EU, and a customs union too".
Mrs May replied: "What I want to do is ensure that we have got the best possible trade arrangements with China and with other countries around the world once we have left the European Union.
"I do want to do those free trade agreements.
"There is more trade that we can do even before we get to those free trade agreements."
Mrs May has repeatedly said that Brexit will mean leaving the existing EU single market and customs union arrangements.
But the Government has already introduced fast track legislation for forming a frictionless trade arrangement, at least for an interim period.
It is also widely considered to be the most likely solution to maintain current Irish border arrangements.
Her comments came as Dr Liam Fox ruled out entering any customs union with the EU after Brexit.
He told Bloomberg TV: "It is very difficult to see how being in a customs union is compatible with having an independent trade policy because we would therefore be dependent on having an independent trade policy.
"Because we would therefore be dependent on what the EU negotiated in terms of its trading policies and we'd be following behind that."
Further confusion arose when the PM's spokesman said she had an "open mind" on whether the UK could join a customs union with the EU but also that Dr Fox was "speaking for the Government".
The comments conclude a three-day trip and the largest ever business delegation led by the UK Government to China.
Speaking before she left, Mrs May also said the UK-EU relationship post-Brexit "will be a free trade agreement, a separate agreement that we will negotiate".
And the PM said very clearly for the first time that she would be seeking a full free trade agreement with China - a controversial issue.
Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has said such an arrangement would "destroy" the steel industry.
But leading Tory Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have demanded a slashing of tariffs on Chinese imports of clothes, shoes and food, which would deliver a price cut dividend for voters.
Pushed on whether she would adopt the idea, Mrs May said: "We've made the first step which is that we are putting together a review of trade and investment between us.
"While we do that, while we look ahead to a free trade agreement what we are also doing is ensuring that businesses today, like the businesses who are with me on this trip to China, can sign new agreements for selling great British products into the Chinese markets, we will see more Chinese investment coming into the UK."
While the PM has been away, her ministers have been squabbling over the leaked impact assessments that predicted the negative economic effects of Brexit would far outweigh the positives from new trade deals with other global economies.
Asked by Sky News if her entire Government "had had enough of experts", she said: "It has not approved by ministers and it does not model the sort of agreement that we are seeking to negotiate with the EU."
(c) Sky News 2018: Mixed messages from Theresa May and Liam Fox on customs union after Brexit