Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday defended the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU despite growing criticism of its economic impact, dismissing claims he was pushing for closer European ties.
Hunt, who voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, was rumored to be the source of a report last weekend that the government was eyeing a “Swiss-style” deal with Brussels.
But he rejected claims that he was the “senior government figure” quoted in the article, who has threatened to reopen deep divisions among ruling Conservatives over what form Brexit should take.
The government supports the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) signed with the EU, he told the influential cross-party Treasury Committee in parliament.
“We think it’s an excellent deal,” he added.
“We don’t support, we wouldn’t consider, I don’t support, I never considered, any agreement that involves moving away from the TCA.
“That means we don’t negotiate or decide on the rules we want as sovereign equals, pay unnecessary money to the EU or indeed compromise on freedom of movement.
“That has always been my position as finance minister.”
He added: “Regarding the Sunday Times story, if you say it was the Treasury, was I the source for any suggestion that we should try to renegotiate the TCA to get it to an agreement? more similar to the agreement with Switzerland?” , the answer is no.”
– Going hard –
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May proposed a similar deal, which was roundly rejected by lawmakers and contributed to her downfall in 2019.
May’s successor Boris Johnson dragged his own “tougher” Brexit deal through parliament on the back of a landslide general election victory in 2019, fought in a campaign to “get Brexit done”.
But despite promises of greater freedoms to set policy and chart its own course in the world, the UK has found post-Brexit life difficult, even without the shock of the Covid pandemic.
The Bank of England and the government’s independent watchdog have both said Brexit has hurt the UK economy and pushed it to the brink of recession.
On Tuesday, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts that next year the UK economy will shrink more than the seven most advanced countries in the world.
Many critics have partly blamed the fallout from Brexit, which saw the UK withdraw from the European single market and end the customs union and free movement between member states.
Switzerland has much closer ties to the bloc through bilateral agreements that allow access to the internal market, a high level of free movement, and through payments to the EU treasury.
But on Monday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shut down the pursuit of “any relationship with Europe that depends on compliance with EU law,” as Eurosceptic Tories warned of backsliding.
The European Commission says no Swiss-style deal is on the table.
Hunt last week raised taxes and cut spending to reverse uncovered tax cuts by his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng, led by short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Hunt also suggested on Wednesday that support for households would not be extended beyond early 2024, even if utility bills remain high.