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Britain will not be part of a European customs union after Brexit, says Hunt

The Health Secretary revealed that the Government was putting itself on a collision course with Tory Brexit rebels.

The Cabinet has agreed to pursue a Brexit policy which will put Britain outside a customs union with the European Union but match Brussels rules in certain sectors in an attempt to achieve “frictionless” trade, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The Health Secretary revealed that the Government was putting itself on a collision course with Tory Brexit rebels who are backing an amendment to the Trade Bill which would mandate the UK to form a customs union with Brussels on leaving the EU.

The move presents an increased danger to Prime Minister Theresa May because shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour now backs a customs union which would look “pretty much like” the current one after withdrawal.

Mr Hunt, who did not attend a Thursday meeting of the Brexit “war cabinet” at Chequers, said ministers agree that Britain must not be part of a customs union as it should have the right to strike free trade deals with other countries, and claimed “frictionless” trade was still possible without one.

The Brexit

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If we were a part of the customs union we wouldn’t be able to negotiate trade deals independently with other countries and we wouldn’t have full sovereign control of our destiny as a nation.

“But what we want is frictionless trade and we want to find a different way – customs union is one way of getting frictionless trade but it’s not the only way – and what we’re saying is we want to achieve frictionless trade by agreement between two sovereign bodies – the United Kingdom and European Union.”

The Prime Minister’s senior ministers who set Brexit policy attended an eight-hour meeting at Chequers on Thursday to plot a way forward after Tory tensions went public.

Mr Hunt said a broad agreement was reached ahead of a planned speech from Mrs May next week to set out the Government’s Brexit agenda.

He said: “I think the central understanding – you have divergent views on a big issue like Brexit as you would expect – but the central common understanding is that there will be areas and sectors of industry where we agree to align our regulations with European regulations: the automotive industry is perhaps an obvious example because of supply chains that are integrated.

“But it will be on a voluntary basis, we will as a sovereign power have the right to choose to diverge, and what we won’t be doing is accepting changes in rules because the EU unilaterally chooses to make those changes.”

Tory Brexit rebel Anna Soubry, who has tabled the customs union amendment, said she has cross-party support and called on Labour to back it, tweeting: “It would be in the national interest if the Government & official Opposition also backed it.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is to unveil a competing vision of how Brexit should work in what is being billed as a significant address on Monday, after some backbenchers called for more clarity from the leadership.

Mrs May was also facing pressure from the Brexiteer wing of her party amid reports that EU migrants who arrive in the UK during any transition period will be allowed to stay permanently.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of backbench Tory Eurosceptics, said such a U-turn from the PM would be “unconscionable”.

The Tory MP told Today: “Mrs May said when she was in China that she wasn’t going to do that and that people who came after we’d left would be subject to different conditions, which seems absolutely right.

“You’ve got to remember we are leaving the European Union on March 29 (2019), we will be out of the treaties on that day, we will not have any say in the rules that are made and therefore people who come after that day ought not to be allowed to have the full and permanent free movement rights.

“That would be quite wrong, and they will know the conditions on which they come, which is important, so it’s fair to people who come after that date.

“And I’d be astonished if Mrs May would make U-turn of that kind; she is a lady of great backbone and for her to kowtow to the European Union is I think unconscionable.”

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