A backlash is brewing among hardline Brexiters after reports emerged that senior UK government figures want the country to adopt a Swiss-style agreement with the European Union.
Steve Barclay, the UK health secretary, rubbished the suggestion that has already sent jitters through leading Conserviatives on the European Research Group (ERG).
He insisted the government wanted to “maximise the opportunities” of leaving the EU and added that as a former Brexit secretary, he had “worked very hard to maximise” the freedoms of independence.
It comes amid a renewed focus on the effects of Brexit, given the UK is the only G7 country still lagging behind pre-pandemic growth levels and a suggestion by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, that removing trade barriers would boost growth.
The Sunday Times reported that senior government figures were effectively revisiting a Brexit trading arrangement offered by the EU last year, which would get rid of 80% of the checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and open up access to the single market.
But the move would require the UK to pledge alignment, at least temporarily, on food and agriculture standards. Doing so would be anathema to champions of a hard Brexit, including Boris Johnson’s former chief negotiator, Lord Frost, as well as members of the hardline ERG.
They see any alignment as a subjugation of control to Brussels and, even though ministers including Michael Gove have repeatedly in the past declared the UK would keep food and farming standards equal or higher to those in the EU, any formal deal would be seen as a part-reversal of Frost’s trade deal.
The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, offered a Swiss style trading agreement last June but it was rejected by Frost. The move was reportedly being considered by some in government, particularly while Rishi Sunak seeks to avoid a trade war with the EU and strike a deal on the Northern Ireland protocool.
Barclay told Sky News “I don’t recognise this story at all”, and said he did not support a Swiss-style relationship with the EU when it was first touted. “I want to maximise the opportunities that Brexit offers,” he added.
Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, said he hoped and believed that a Swiss-style deal “isn’t something under consideration”, while Frost tweeted that if the claims were correct, he hoped “the government thinks better of these plans, fast”.
The report could be the result of briefings designed to test how far the ERG would resist in the challenging economic environment the UK has found it in two years since Frost’s trade deal was struck.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told Sky News: “We’re not proposing returning to the single market or the customs union, or anything like that. But we do want to negotiate a bespoke deal for the UK, so that our businesses can export, so that we can get those agreements on agriculture, so we can work together on security issues.”
After Hunt’s autumn statement on Thursday, Tony Danker, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, also told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show that there was “nothing there that tells us the economy is going to avoid another decade of low productivity or low growth”.
A so-called “sanitary and phytosanitary” deal would involve the UK harmonising its laws with the EU. The EU-Swiss agreement removes all documentary and identity checks, and most physical checks, as well as most veterinary certificates.
Last June, Šefčovič said the EU would remove 80% of the checks on food, including controls on movement of beef, mince and poultry products from GB to Northern Ireland. It would also remove the need for pet passports, which has been widely criticised in Northern Ireland and London.
An EU-UK veterinary agreement has been advocated by the NI Alliance MP Stephen Farry, and by the party’s leader, Naomi Long. The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has urged the UK government to sign a Swiss-style agreement with the EU. Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesperson and executive minister, has also suggested the UK sign up to a Swiss-style arrangement.