A customs union would not provide a “long-term solution” to Britain’s trade relationships after Brexit, Jeremy Hunt has said, as he suggested a breakthrough in cross-party talks could come within days.
As discussions continue between the Government and the Labour Party, the Foreign Secretary said it was still possible that the UK would not have to take part in the European elections in three weeks’ time.
He warned that the outcome would not be “pretty” for both parties if they had to participate in the polls and said the cross-party talks could yield a deal in the next week.
In an interview with the Press Association as he travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, on the last leg of his week-long African visit, Mr Hunt said there would need to be a “very high degree of statesmanship on both sides” in the discussions.
“We have an adversarial system in Westminster and it’s in our DNA not to co-operate with each other.
“But I think the glimmer of hope we have in this situation is that both Conservative core voters and Labour core voters want Brexit sorted, and both would be extremely angry with the party they voted for if we had another general election without Brexit being delivered.”
He added: “This is a very exceptional time and there are substantively difficult issues, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Asked if he would support a customs union compromise as part of the discussions, Mr Hunt said: “I’ve never believed that a customs union is a long-term solution because how could you expect the EU, for example, to stand up for the rights of Scotch whisky distillers if they were negotiating a trade deal with the United States or Japan, even though the UK had absolutely no say in that trade deal?
“There’s no example anywhere in the world where a large economy like the UK – the fifth largest in the world – subcontracts the negotiation of its trade deals.
“But I think that what Labour really want when they talk about a customs union is the benefits of a customs union: friction-less trade, to facilitate issues around the border in Northern Ireland and manufacture and supply chains, and we want that too.
“So, if we can find a solution that delivers the benefits of the customs union without signing up to the current arrangements, then I think there will be potential.”
It's not going to be pretty for any of the big parties if we have to fight these elections
He said that while he supported the Prime Minister’s deal, there may be things that can be done to make it “more acceptable” to Labour without compromising on the “things that we think are essential”.
Mr Hunt warned that if politicians do not resolve Brexit then they will have “failed as a political class” in doing what Labour and the Tories promised at the last general election.
He also said it was “still not impossible” to pass the Withdrawal Act before May 22.
“That is what we are all desperately hoping for because it’s not going to be pretty for any of the big parties if we have to fight these elections.
“If we don’t have the Withdrawal Act in law by May 22, that is what will happen.”
But Education Secretary Damian Hinds appeared to be resigned to the idea that Tories will have to fight the elections.
Mr Hinds told BBC Newsnight: “We didn’t want to be here, we should have left the EU on 29 March… but there is a legal position that we have to have this election.
“I would still like that we didn’t have to fight them, or that if we have to fight these elections, then those newly elected would be MEPs that never have to take up their seats. But this all relies on us really accelerating (efforts to pass a deal.)”
Asked what the Tory pitch to voters would be, he said: “Our pitch will be that we have good candidates.”
Fellow Cabinet minister Michael Gove told the Telegraph the Union between England and Scotland must be safeguarded during Brexit.
Denying he had “gone soft” on Brexit by opposing no deal, the Environment Secretary said: “We have to face facts. At the moment the arithmetic in the House of Commons is opposed to leaving without a deal.
“There would be economic challenges. We could get through them but they would undoubtedly be there in the short term.
“The other thing is I don’t think we should do anything which undermines the Union. The best way of bringing the country together is to leave with a good deal.”
Mr Gove also opposes a customs union, which Labour is pushing for in the negotiations.
He said: “I think it’s critical we do everything we can to make sure that Britain has the chance of an independent trade policy in the future and what we need to do in order to secure that future independent trade policy is make sure we get the Withdrawal Bill through and that’s what we’re trying to persuade Labour of the merits of.”