Philip Hammond has been accused of ceding ground to cabinet Brexiters on Sunday after adding his signature to an article saying the UK would not remain in the customs union framework during the transitional period after Brexit.
The chancellor clarified the government’s position in a statement jointly written with Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, saying that the UK would be “outside the customs union” during the post-Brexit transition phase and that at that point it would be “a ‘third country’, not party to the EU treaties”.
This means that the UK will be free to conclude trade deals with non-EU countries from the moment it leaves in March 2019, and that it will not have to wait until the transition is over, possibly three years later.
Hammond and Fox are seen as the two ministers at opposite ends of the soft-hard Brexit spectrum and their joint article, which also said the transitional period would be “time-limited”, was intended to quash speculation that the cabinet is divided on the issue.
Theresa May will be back at her desk later this week after her holiday, with a set of government Brexit position papers due to be published shortly. Before the UK-EU Brexit talks resume at the end of this month, the government wants to repair the damage caused by summer headlines about Brexit splits.
Hammond has spent the last few weeks arguing strongly for a lengthy Brexit transitional period, to the delight of pro-Europeans, and earlier this summer he hinted that he was considering an arrangement that would in effect keep the UK in the customs union, and therefore unable to sign bilateral trade deals with non-EU countries, for the period between Brexit and the final settlement coming into force.
Fox, who was alarmed at the prospect of heading an international trade department unable to strike trade deals possibly for the rest of this parliament, admitted last month [paywall] that there was “still a discussion to be had” on this issue….