Theresa May refuses to reveal her Brexit negotiating hand 'prematurely'
Theresa May has refused to say whether she wants the UK to remain within the European single market, telling MPs she will not reveal her Brexit negotiating hand "prematurely".
The Prime Minister came under pressure on the issue in the House of Commons after slapping down Brexit Secretary David Davis for suggesting that continued membership of the free trade zone was "very improbable".
She told MPs that she was seeking "the right deal" on trade in goods and services after Britain withdraws from the EU, but added: "We will not take decisions until we are ready, we will not reveal our hand prematurely and we will not provide a running commentary on every twist and turn of the negotiations."
The PM and her ministers were accused of "waffle" by Scottish National Party Westminster leader Angus Robertson, while the Liberal Democrats' Tim Farron said: "This Government isn't concealing its hand - it hasn't got a hand or, it would appear, a clue."
Jeremy Corbyn accused the Government of issuing "contradictory messages" on Brexit which were exacerbating "huge uncertainty" about the UK's future.
Mrs May was pursuing a "free trade dogma" rather than a trade policy which would protect people and jobs, he told MPs.
A senior Corbyn aide later said the Labour leader was in favour of negotiating full UK access to the single market, but would not accept a package including requirements on deregulation and privatisation, which he regarded as damaging to working people and public services.
At the first session of Prime Minister's Questions after the Commons recess and the G20 summit in China, Mr Robertson demanded a "in or an out answer" to the question about single market membership, which many businesses regard as vital to their export chances.
The PM replied: "What I want for the UK is that we put in to practice the vote that was taken by the people of the UK to leave the EU, that we get the right deal for the trade in goods and services with the EU in a new relationship that we will be building with them and that we also introduce control of the movement of people from the European Union into the UK."
Mrs May insisted that "we are respecting the views of the British people" rather than attempting to row back from Brexit.
She added: "We will be seizing the opportunities that leaving the EU now gives us to forge a new role for the UK in the world".
The complexity of the challenge posed by Brexit was underlined by Australia's warning that it will be unable to strike a free trade deal with the UK for at least two and a half years.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's promise of an "early ... very strong, very open free trade agreement" with the UK was one of the highlights for Theresa May of last weekend's G20, which saw warnings over Japanese companies leaving a post-Brexit Britain, and confirmation from Barack Obama that the US will seek trade deals with the EU and Pacific states before the UK.
Now Australian minister Steven Ciobo has made clear during a visit to London for talks with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox that only "preliminary" discussions are possible at this stage.
The negotiation of a formal deal will have to wait until after Mrs May has completed the two-year Brexit procedure under Article 50 of the EU treaties, which she has said she will not trigger before the start of 2017.
Mr Ciobo said an eventual deal could be struck "quite quickly", because of Australia's close historic and cultural ties with the UK, but added: "You would expect it's at least two and a half years off."
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "My formal advice is that - and this is from the UK side - the UK is unable to negotiate or sign an agreement prior to the formal exit from the EU."
Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond acknowledged the financial sector's concerns about single market access, following a meeting with City grandees.
"I understand the scale of the potential impact leaving the EU could have for parts of the financial services industry," said the Chancellor. "That is why I am determined to listen to what the industry has to say on key issues, like access to the single market."
Pat McFadden MP of the Open Britain campaign, said: "The Government's position of giving no clarity may be a result of not knowing what their three Brexit ministers will say next, but it's not good enough for the public, who deserve to know what direction we are going in following the referendum.
"The question of the single market matters to jobs, trade, investment and prosperity.
"We cannot gamble our economic future on a Liam Fox world tour exploring trade deals when countries have already said that settling our relationship with the EU is the priority.
"Any new deals will be more comprehensive if the UK has maximum access to European markets, which means membership of the single market."
Mrs May will hold talks with European Council president Donald Tusk in No 10 on Thursday.
They are expected to discuss Brexit, migration, trade and Ukraine over a working breakfast.
The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said: "It will be an opportunity in part to talk about the process of leaving the European Union, how we see the upcoming months, but also to talk about the upcoming October European Council and some of the issues that we expect to be on the agenda for that, such as migration, trade and where we are at with the situation in eastern Ukraine."
Labour MP Chuka Umunna, chairman of the Vote Leave Watch group, said: "Working people the length and breadth of Britain benefit enormously from Britain's place in the European single market.
"Labour should be fighting for Britain to stay in the single market, not turning a blind eye to its advantages. I hope our party clarifies its position in support of UK membership of the single market, and continued close engagement with Europe."