Post-Brexit free trade with EU will be possible, claims Liam Fox
Liam Fox and fellow senior Tories have insisted Britain can maintain free trade with the European Union and control over immigration after Brexit despite fresh warnings that it would be "impossible".
The International Trade Secretary said trade with the EU can be "at least as free" as it is now, while former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin insisted Britain should "have its cake and eat it".
But Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stressed Britain will not have full access to the single market while curbing immigration, saying it would be "impossible" to give the UK more rights than other non-EU nations.
EU leaders have repeatedly said access to the free trade zone is dependent on allowing the free movement of EU citizens - seen as unpalatable by Theresa May and raising the prospect of a "hard Brexit" outside the single market.
Dr Fox hinted the Government may be leaning towards such a move, saying the UK would become an independent member of the World Trade Organisation post-Brexit and comply with its tariffs and rules.
He said the UK would then work with the WTO on "taking an axe to red tape across borders", adding: " The UK is a full and founding member of the WTO, though we have chosen to be represented by the EU in recent years.
"As we establish our independent position post-Brexit, we will carry the standard of free and open trade as a badge of honour."
But despite his suggestion of what is seen as a "hard Brexit", Dr Fox insisted it was in the interests of EU countries to offer the UK free and open trade after it leaves the union.
The issue could dominate the Tory conference, although Mrs May has taken an unusual step in scheduling a major speech on Sunday, the opening day, to address Brexit in a possible attempt to deal with it early before moving on.
Answering questions after a "major" speech in Manchester, Dr Fox said: "Protectionism never actually helps anybody at all and as we move into a post-Brexit arena, we want it to be as free and as open as possible.
"And don't just look at it from the UK perspective, the European Union has a massive surplus in goods with the UK.
"Who does it harm more if we end up in a new tariff environment?
"Does it harm more those who sell more to the UK, or the UK?
"It's in everybody's interests that, as we move forward, that we have at least as free a trading environment as we have today.
"Everything else may not harm the politicians and institutions but it will harm the people of Europe, and it's the people of Europe who should be at the forefront of our thoughts during that period."
Mr Letwin said the UK needed to retain access to the single market while gaining control over immigration at the same time.
Asked if that amounted to having your cake and eating it, he told the BBC's Daily Politics: "Yes - correct - that's what we want - we want cake and eating it."
Former education secretary Nicky Morgan also said European leaders could back away from their insistence that access to the single market depends on also allowing the free movement of EU citizens.
" Nobody starts the beginning of the negotiating process where they end up," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
But Markus Kerber, head of the BDI, which represents German industry, said Britain had to pursue a hard Brexit if it wants control over immigration.
He told Today: "So what we think the British Government wants, I can tell you straight away, it's not what the Continental Europeans are willing or even able to give."
Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg described Dr Fox's speech as "delusional" and urged him to make public the economic impact of leaving the single market.
The Liberal Democrat EU spokesman said: "Unbelievably, he claims to be 'taking an axe to red tape across borders'.
"The truth is that leaving the EU's customs union and single market will bring a deluge of new Brexit red tape down on the heads of British businesses who export to the continent."
The CBI, which represents British businesses, said it was "encouraging" to see Dr Fox supporting free trade.
Its international director Ben Digby said: "Redefining our economic and trading links with Europe must be the first priority, as the Continent remains our biggest trading partner and the terms of our exit from the EU will help to shape what future trade deals look like."
Labour former minister Pat McFadden warned Dr Fox against pulling out of the single market.
He said on behalf of the Open Britain campaign: "I suppose you have to feel for Mr Fox - a man with a job and a title but as yet neither a role nor a plan.
"He says he wants free trade with the EU. We already have that through membership of the Single Market. Yet he is prepared to put it at risk."
He added: "Today's speech took us no further in terms of setting out a Government plan of how to secure as good and free access to our biggest market as we currently have through the single market.
"The three Brexiteers can make all the speeches they want but they won't mean anything until they come up with a plan that answers the hard questions about Brexit."