Johnson challenges Hammond with warning against being "locked" to EU rules

PUBLISHED: 14:13 14 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:14 14 February 2018

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson makes his point

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Boris Johnson today fired another salvo at Philip Hammond, claiming it would be "mad" to end up with a Brexit settlement that did not allow the UK to enjoy the "economic freedoms" of leaving the EU.

Signalling the need to diverge from EU rules after leaving the bloc, the foreign secretary insisted that the UK should not remain in alignment with Brussels.

In the latest in the very public Cabinet battle over how closely the UK should remain tied to the EU after leaving, Mr Johnson said Britain should not be "lashed to the minute prescriptions" of the EU.

His comments, at a speech in London, are in stark contrast to Chancellor and Cabinet remainer-in-chief Philip Hammond's hope that the UK would only diverge "very modestly" from the Union.

With the Cabinet set to make a final decision on its approach, Mr Johnson also refused to guarantee he would not flounce out this year if there was a plan for close alignment.

"We are all very lucky to serve and I'm certainly one of those," he said.

The UK has committed to leave the single market and customs union, but the EU could impose conditions to closely follow rules as part of the comprehensive deal sought by Theresa May.

Setting out his approach, Mr Johnson said: "We would be mad to go through this process of extrication from the EU and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring."

By leaving the EU "we will be able, if we so choose, to fish our own fish, to ban the traffic in live animals and payments to some of the richest landowners in Britain".

There would be freedom to cut VAT on fuel, "simplify planning and speed up public procurement".

In a sign that there could be changes to environmental protections, Mr Johnson bizarrely said it might be necessary to "build special swimming pools for newts" but "it would at least be our decision".

Mr Johnson said the issue was about "who decides" and "it may very well make sense" to remain in alignment with EU standards on some products - but that commitment should not be written in to the Brexit deal.

"I don't think we should necessarily commit, as a matter of treaty, that forever and a day we are going to remain locked into permanent congruence with the EU," he said.

In an effort to address widespread concerns about the potential hit to trade, Mr Johnson said: "To those who worry about coming out of the customs union or the single market - please bear in mind that the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed."

Outside the EU the UK would be able to do "serious free trade deals" with growing economies around the world, he claimed.

Mr Johnson rejected arguments for a second referendum and warned that it would be a "disastrous mistake" to remain in the EU.

He insisted, despite the Leave camp's relentless focus on immigration during the referendum campaign, that Brexit would not make the UK more "insular" and Britain would remain a "magnet" for talented migrants.

But he added: "We need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the impact of 20 years of uncontrolled immigration by low-skilled, low-wage workers".

Mr Johnson's speech, briefed as being aimed at reaching out to Remain supporters, did little to win over Tory critics.

Sarah Wollaston said Mr Johnson's upbeat speech did not address the "serious practical difficulties" posed by Brexit.

Former minister Anna Soubry said he "fails to understand the very real concerns of British business".

The speech is the first of six being made by the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet figures to set out the Government's road map for Brexit.

The prime minister will travel to Munich for a speech on security arrangements on Saturday.

Further speeches will be delivered by David Davis, the Brexit secretary (on how Britain’s businesses will maintain high standards), Cabinet Office minister David Lidington (on the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and international trade secretary and disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox (on how the UK will forge new trade deals).

It follows criticism of the prime minister for failing to spell out Britain's Brexit aims.

Labour and trade unions warned that Boris Johnson's Brexit vision would result in workers' rights being scrapped.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson's speech had revealed the government's intention to "casually cast aside" rights and protections when the UK leaves the EU.

The Confederation of British Industry insisted that firms did not want a "bonfire of regulations".

Sir Keir said Mr Johnson's approach would "further divide the country" and put jobs and living standards at risk.

He said: "This speech underlined the government's real intentions - a Brexit of deregulation, where rights and protections are casually cast aside and where the benefits of the single market and the customs union are ignored.

"Nobody will be fooled or reassured by the foreign secretary's empty rhetoric.

"His insistence on deregulating our economy is the opposite of what businesses and trade unions want to hear."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "People have learned not to trust Boris Johnson.

"Instead of calming the worries of working people, he fuelled fears that he believes essential workplace rights are 'intolerable'.

"When he says 'regulatory divergence' he means scrapping hard-won rights to paid holidays, equal pay and safety at work. And if that's his vision, he's never going to unite the nation behind it."

John Foster, the CBI's director of campaigns, said businesses were committed to making Brexit a success but "evidence, not ideology, should guide the UK's thinking on a close future relationship with the EU".

He said: "Businesses aren't looking for a bonfire of regulation - quite the opposite - our aerospace, automotive and chemical sectors, to name a few, all have highly integrated European supply chains that benefit from consistent regulation.

"And securing alignment of data rules is vital to protect the thousands of innovative businesses that make up the UK's £240bn data economy."

Technology industry body techUK's chief executive Antony Walker said: "We do not make the UK more attractive to the rest of the world by putting barriers in the way of trade with our biggest market.

"Whilst there may be areas where the UK wants to diverge from EU rules in the future, these are likely to be limited as the gains from divergence would have to outweigh the very significant benefits of having alignment with our closest trading partner."

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: "Boris Johnson is completely deluded about Brexit.

"This speech wasn't about the most important issue facing our country right now, this was about Boris' ambitions to become the next prime minister, and it probably wasn't much help on that front either."

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