Hammond to prioritise business at British cabinet Brexit meeting

Conservative Party tensions erupt ahead of effort to find common approach to EU talks

Britain's chancellor Philip Hammond has told MPs he will press the case for a Brexit that prioritises business interests when the cabinet meets at Chequers on Friday. Mr Hammond said he would set out the treasury's assessment of the economic consequences of various options for Britain's future relationship with the European Union.

“On Friday, as I have done consistently for the last two years, I will argue for a future relationship with the European Union that protects our important supply chains, protects British jobs and protects British business going forward,” he said.

Tensions over Brexit within the Conservative Party have erupted into the open in advance of Friday's meeting, which will seek to unite the cabinet around a common approach to the negotiations with the EU. The government is due to publish a White Paper next week which Theresa May has promised will outline Britain's position in greater detail than ever before.

Clarity and realism

European Council president Donald Tusk said on Tuesday that he hoped the White Paper would bring "the necessary clarity, realism and impetus" to the negotiations.


"There is much work ahead with less and less time. I was very honest in my assessment, including when I spoke to prime minister May last week. The sooner we get a precise UK proposal on the Irish Border, the better the chance to finalise the Brexit negotiations this year. Put simply: we cannot make progress unless a solid backstop is presented by the UK and accepted by our Irish friends," he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

As the government remained tight-lipped about Ms May's new proposal for customs arrangements with the EU, Brexiteer backbenchers warned the prime minister against compromising her negotiating red lines. Former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Patterson said on Tuesday that Britain should be preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

"We should be offering the EU reciprocal free trade with zero tariffs, and if they won't accept that then we go to World Trade [Organisation] arrangements which tiny little countries like the United States, China, India struggle to trade under," he told the BBC.

Pressure on Corbyn

Meanwhile, pressure increased on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back a referendum on the final Brexit deal after Unite the Union endorsed the possibility of a second vote. The union drew back from the most radical anti-Brexit position of calling for a fresh referendum but delegates at its annual conference backed a motion stating that the union should be "open to the possibility of a popular vote being held on any deal, depending on political circumstances".

The union’s leader Len McCluskey said that, although the majority of Labour party members don’t want Brexit, most of its voters do.

“Let me be clear, we are not calling for a second referendum,” he said. “In or out of the EU matters less than getting the Tories out of office and Jeremy Corbyn into No 10.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times