Senior members of the Government have declared the UK will not seek to remain in the European Union “by the back door” and will leave both the single market and the customs union when Brexit happens in 2019.
Chancellor Philip Hammond, a strong Remain campaigner, and Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a leading Brexiteer, put on a display of unity with a joint pledge that echoes Theresa May’s oft-repeated remark that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Writing in the Brexit-backing Telegraph, the ministers said there would be a “transition period” if the UK leaves the 28-country block as expected in March, 2019, to avoid an economic “cliff edge” which many businesses and economists fear.
But they added the transition period would be just that, and would not be used as an attempt to prolong membership or to delay the inevitable.
The jointly penned article appeared designed to reassure those in favour of a clean break, but will do little to comfort those fearing the consequences of a so-called “hard Brexit”.
“We will leave the customs union and be free to negotiate the best trade deals around the world as an independent, open, trading nation,” the article said.
”We will leave the single market, because there was a vote for change on 23 June and that is what we will deliver.”
It added that businesses should be assured there would be no “cliff edge” despite fears expressed that the UK could crash out of the EU without reaching a deal, which would see UK-EU relations revert to World Trade Organisation rules.
“That is why we believe a time-limited interim period will be important to further our national interest and give business greater certainty – but it cannot be indefinite; it cannot be a back door to staying in the EU," Mr Hammond and Mr Fox wrote.
Mr Hammond had previously ruffled feathers in Brexiteer camp by suggesting he hoped the UK would be able to continue free trade with the EU for as many as four years after leaving.
The old divisions in the Tory party over Europe appeared to resurface when Mr Fox said that any such transition period would end before the next general election in 2022.
With Ms May due to return from her summer holiday, the article appeared designed to end party feuding as well as ongoing speculation that the UK might somehow be able to salvage membership of the single market through negotiations with the EU.
Over the coming 10 days, a number of Government papers will be published spelling out the UK’s Brexit blueprint on key issues including the customs union, the Irish border, fisheries and agriculture.
Free movement for Irish citizens in and out of Britain is expected to continue after Brexit, with the establishment of a Schengen-style area between Ireland and Britain designed to resolve the border problem.
The Government has recently moved to clarify that freedom of movement between the EU and the UK will definitely end in 2019, with the three million EU citizens already in Britain having to apply for inclusion on a “settled status” register if they wish to remain.
In June, the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier called for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees” around the protection of EU citizens living in the UK.