Theresa May has been accused of “weakness” for allowing leading Cabinet Brexiteers to help launch a new free trade think-tank.
Pro-European opposition MPs insisted the move by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox “undermined” Government policy.
Mr Johnson was using the launch of the Institute for Free Trade (IFT) at the Foreign Office on Wednesday to call for Britain to become a world leader in opening up economies.
Labour MP Pat McFadden, speaking for the Open Britain group which wants to maintain the closest possible links to the EU, said: “Any Prime Minister with an ounce of strength would not permit her Cabinet colleagues to launch think-tanks undermining the Government’s policy, let alone in a Government building.
“But this just shows how weak Theresa May’s position has become. The Florence truce has not lasted long. Ideology over Europe has divided them before and it’s doing so today. But the key point is that this is not a game. The country’s future is at stake. And the economic interests of the country must come before the nationalist ideology to which too many ministers subscribe.”
The IFT launch, which is closed to the media, comes as opposition MPs pointed to a decision by the US Department of Commerce to impose huge tariffs on the import of Bombardier planes, partly built in Northern Ireland, as proof America is becoming increasingly protectionist under President Donald Trump.
Mr Johnson insisted that more free trade would spread peace and help ease poverty worldwide. He said: “Free trade is not only the key to economic success, but also serves as a force for peace and progress in every sense, giving millions more people the chance to lift themselves out of poverty.
“We must ensure that Global Britain breaks free of the constraints of the EU and becomes the world’s leading proselytiser and agitator for free trade. I am delighted to attend the launch of the Institute for Free Trade and to support its noble mission. It is no exaggeration to say that the livelihoods of millions of people depend on its success.”
And International Trade Secretary Dr Fox added: “Our work as an international economic department has never been more critical in making the moral case for free trade to help provide economic stability and lift millions out of poverty, whilst increasing productivity and offering consumers better choices.
“There are huge opportunities for the UK to be a global leader in helping growing economies realise the benefits of open and fair trade, and the launch of the Institute for Free Trade will further help us highlight the importance trade has on the prosperity of the world economy.”
IFT president, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, said Brexit provided an opportunity to “revitalise the global trading system”.
“It’s not every day that a G7 country gets to draw up new tariff schedules,” he said. “If we open our markets, we can preserve the freest trade with our 27 EU allies while liberalising further with the other 162 World Trade Organisation members.
“To succeed, we must convince people that free trade, far from being exploitative, is the ultimate instrument of poverty alleviation, conflict resolution and social justice.”