Britain should not be “terrified” of crashing out of the European Union without a deal and trading on World Trade Organisation terms, a former cabinet minister has said.
Owen Paterson, a senior Tory Brexiteer, played down suggestions that such a move would entail price hikes and customs delays. He said that a so-called no deal scenario was “inevitable at the moment, it is an ineluctable certainty we are going to end up with WTO at the end of this anyway” and argued that it was better to “state that now” and give businesses time to prepare.
The former environment secretary is among prominent figures who have signed a letter organised by Leave Means Leave, a pressure group campaigning for hard Brexit.
The letter urges the prime minister, who meets EU leaders today, to threaten to walk away from talks if they remain intransigent about moving on to discuss trade.
Mr Paterson said that it appeared unlikely that a trade deal would be struck with the EU “because they are flatly refusing to talk about it”. He said that the 27 other states had shown a “complete obsession with money” over the Brexit divorce bill.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that a trade deal with the EU was “the best destination, but what we should not be terrified of is the WTO”.
Mr Paterson said that the UK could unilaterally decide not to impose tariffs if trade moved to WTO terms in an effort to protect consumers: “We could decide that, that would be up to our own elected politicians to make that decision.”
As European leaders gathered in Brussels, he said: “We have to face the fact that this summit is not going to discuss any future trade deal. We are ineluctably moving down the road to a WTO arrangement so we had better start preparing for it. If they come back, and we very much hope they would, to talk about a free trade deal, that would be a bonus.”
However the former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, who is pro-EU, said: “It is absolutely not ‘inevitable’ that the UK ends up on WTO terms with no Brexit deal — it is what the hard Brexiteers want.”
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary said this morning that the opposition is not “duty bound” to support any deal that Theresa May secures with Brussels.
Sir Keir Starmer said that Labour would not give her a “blank cheque” for the negotiations but hit back against the idea pushed by some pro-Leave figures that the prime minister should threaten to walk away from talks.
He and Jeremy Corbyn have travelled to Brussels today for their own talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, as Mrs May joins other EU leaders for the European Council summit.
Sir Keir said: “The last thing we need is threats about walking out because everybody wants a deal. A deal is needed for the UK, a deal is needed for the EU. I have talked to hundreds of businesses across the UK and they are all of one mind: we need a deal. So threatening to walk away at this stage is irresponsible.”
He said that Labour supported David Davis, the Brexit secretary, in trying to keep the divorce fee “as low as possible” but would not commit to backing any deal that the government secured.
“We are not going to do that. It wouldn’t be right for our country to say, ‘Here’s a blank cheque, prime minister. You do the best you can, even if you come back with something that would be damaging for our country; we are not going to challenge you on it’. That would not be the proper role of the opposition.”
October 19th, 2017: The Times