Two of Theresa May’s top ministers have contradicted each other over the likely impact of a “no-deal” Brexit, as tensions over the possibility of leaving the EU without an agreement broke into the open.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News that Britain would “succeed regardless” of how the UK leaves the EU.
His comments were in stark contrast to Business Secretary Greg Clark, who said in an interview with Sky News Sunrise that leaving without a deal would cause “incalculable damage” to British industry.
The comments came as MPs continued to debate the prime minister’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons ahead of a vote on her agreement next Tuesday.
A defeat would ratchet up the chances of Britain leaving without a deal on 29 March, the day the UK officially leaves the EU.
The government’s position is that it is confident of avoiding this, but is prudent to prepare for such a scenario just in case.
Theresa May has warned MPs the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to support a deal, with hers the only deal on the table.
However, some in Mrs May’s party think her deal is so bad that Britain should make “no deal” the government’s official policy and walk away.
They say the country has little to fear from reverting to trading with Europe on World Trade Organisation rules – one of the immediate consequences of “no deal” – and would also have no need to pay the so-called £39bn “divorce bill” to the EU.
But opponents of “no deal” argue the consequences would be severe and wide-ranging, with disruption to supplies of food and medicine and chaos at Britain’s ports among the issues.
Mr Clark is in this camp – and is reportedly prepared to resign from the cabinet if the PM opts to actively pursue leaving without a deal.
When asked about the impact of “no deal”, he told Sky News: “I think there is a substantial majority of MPs who recognise that to move from a trading relationship that is the closest in the world that we have between the UK and the rest of the European Union to the most rudimentary of terms within a matter of weeks would do incalculable damage to the industries that employ people.”
He added that MPs have a responsibility to “current and future generations” to avoid leaving without a deal, something which “we would regret forever”.
Mr Clark also wrote in an article for Politico, published on Thursday, that “no deal” would be a “disaster”.
When asked about the business secretary’s comments, Downing Street said the prime minister would not use such language to describe a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Williamson later directly contradicted his cabinet colleague, although he stressed MPs should accept Mrs May’s deal.
When asked if he agreed with Mr Clark’s assessment, the defence secretary told Sky’s Alistair Bunkall: “Not at all, Britain has always been a nation that will always achieve and always deliver.
“We can be optimistic and confident. Whatever is our future Britain will succeed and do incredibly well.
“But what the prime minister has achieved, she has actually been able to negotiate a deal that is able to deliver us so many of the benefits of the membership of the European Union but outside the European Union and that’s what I hope will be passed.”
When asked to further clarify his comments, Mr Williamson said: “Britain will succeed regardless because Britain is one of the most inventive and creative of nations.
“What we have is a deal with the European Union that we can accept and we can implement and that is what we should be doing.”