Theresa May has been accused of “backpeddling” on the Government’s claims that Britain will be able to secure a new trading deal with the EU before the end of the two-year negotiating period.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Jordan today, the Prime Minister appeared to concede for the first time that negotiations may only “have looked at” a future agreement by the time the 24 months are up.
Her comments follow repeated claims by Tory ministers – including the Brexit Secretary David Davis – that they intend to get trade talks “over and done with” before the UK formally leaves the EU in March 2019.
Labour has described the revelation as an attempt “to downplay expectations” before negotiations get underway, and claim it marks the second “broken promise” since Mrs May triggered Article 50 last week.
“First they said immigration may go up after Brexit. Now they are backpedalling on trade deals,” said shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield.
“They promised a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU giving the ‘exact same benefits’ we have now. They said it would be ready for the day we leave, along with new trade deals with other countries.
“Now, as they face reality, they are trying to downplay expectations.
“They need to spell out the transitional deal that will be in place, to stop the economy falling off a cliff edge without new agreements in two years time.”
During her visit to Jordan as part of a tour of the Middle East, Mrs May was asked to comment on suggestions that any new trade arrangement between the UK and remaining 27 EU member states would have to take place after the two-year Article 50 process is over. The Prime Minister told Sky News that she believed this was a “sensible” and “pragmatic” approach.
“At the end of this negotiation, will we have looked at both withdrawal and the future relationship? That’s what I’ve asked for and that’s what I believe increasingly we will see,” she said.
“I’m clear that by the point at which we leave the EU, it’s right that everyone will know what the future arrangement, relationship, partnership between us and EU will be.”
Mrs May’s comments mark a change in tone from those made during a meeting of Parliament’s liaison committee in December, in which she told MPs she would expect the UK to “be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period”.
They also appear to contrast with Mr Davis’ suggestion in January that he wants the new deal “to be over and done within two years”.
The intervention came as a cross-party group of pro-EU MPs launched a fresh campaign to get the Government to abandon its commitment to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
Open Britain founders Anna Soubry, Pat McFadden and Norman Lamb are joining forces with the Royal College of Midwives, the Migration Matters Trust and The Independent to argue that the target is “unachievable” and risks depriving the UK of “the skills, talent and labour on which [its] economy relies”.
Last night also saw a debate in the House of Lords, in which Labour peers called on ministers to report on their progress securing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK by the end of this Parliamentary session.
Peers also called for the creation of a joint committee of the Lords and the Commons to consider the terms of the vote that Parliament has been promised on the final deal with the EU.