No 10 plays down cabinet differences over Brexit
Theresa May is keen to hear the differing views of ministers in the run-up to Brexit negotiations, her spokeswoman has said following cabinet media briefings against the chancellor, Philip Hammond, by pro-leave cabinet colleagues.
In a sign of apparent cabinet tensions over the balance between limiting immigration and keeping open access to the EU, unnamed cabinet sources told two newspapers about anger towards Hammond over his concerns about plans to swiftly restrict immigration from the EU.
But the prime ministers official spokeswoman told reporters: The prime minister has full confidence in the chancellor and the work that he is doing.
The chancellor is said to have used a meeting last week of Mays cabinet Brexit committee to urge caution about a plan to force EU workers to show they have a guaranteed skilled job before they are allowed into Britain.
One unnamed cabinet source described Hammond as overly influenced by his Treasury officials who think it is a catastrophe that Britain voted to leave the EU, the Telegraph reported.
While playing down the scale of any dissent, the prime ministers spokeswoman said it was vital for the cabinet to properly debate ahead of upcoming departure negotiations with the EU.
The PM wants to prepare fully for those negotiations, she said. That means hearing the differing views of ministers, departments, stakeholders, and some of the conversations they have been having. Ultimately, we need to make sure that we are all working together to ensure that we make a success of Brexit.
Asked about reports of lively debates in cabinet, she said: I think this reflects the fact that the prime minister is pursuing a collective government approach, where either in cabinet or through cabinet committees, relevant cabinet ministers involved are able to discuss and debate the issues before decisions are reached.
While the committee meeting in question, held last Wednesday, was described as convened to float ideas rather than commit to definite proposals, the briefings and counter-briefings Treasury sources said the idea of a row was nonsense hints at potentially significant tensions within the government over how to proceed.
Another unnamed source told the Telegraph of Hammond: He is arguing from a very Treasury point of view. He is arguing like an accountant seeing the risk of everything rather than the opportunity.
The migration plans, outlined to the committee by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, would mean continued free access for EU students and tourists but impose a skills-based work permit scheme for those seeking to take a job.
The Times said Hammonds intervention angered some more pro-Brexit ministers, and was seen as potential foot-dragging by the chancellor who has warned before about the effect of Brexit on the economy.
Mays spokeswoman said too much should not be read into such anonymous briefings, adding: While I said I am not going to give a running commentary on cabinet committee discussions, neither do I recognise everything I have read in the papers over the last few weekends, characterising those discussions.
The cabinet was focused on working together to prepare for those negotiations and there was no danger of a major split, she added.
Earlier the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, did not deny that there had been differences of opinion over Brexit but played down their significance, saying the cabinet was absolutely united on the essentials of leaving the EU.
Hunt does not sit on the Brexit committee but he told BBC Radio 4s Today programme that the briefings did not signal a major problem.On the contrary, he said. If we werent having lively debates in cabinet, you would be saying: Whats happened to cabinet government? Why arent you going through, incredibly thoroughly, all the different arguments to make sure we end up with the right decision?
Mays Conservative party conference speech was seen as favouring tighter immigration controls over access to the blocs single market.
However, Hammond has called for what he describes as a more pragmatic view. In his conference speech, the chancellor said the UK needed to keep control of its borders while protecting our economy, our jobs and our living standards.
Hammonds concerns are mirrored elsewhere, with Irelands prime minister, Enda Kenny, calling a cross-border summit to examine the possible consequences of Brexit for his country.
Separately, May is reported to be considering plans to protect Britains financial services industry after Brexit by seeking special measures for banks and insurers to keep their privileged passporting trade rights with the rest of the EU.
The Financial Times cited unnamed senior ministers as saying May could commit Britain to still paying billions a year into the EU budget in return for keeping single market rights for certain sectors.
Mays spokeswoman on Monday described such reports as speculation.
Any differences between ministers are likely to surface most strongly on the Brexit committee, whose 12 permanent members are split evenly between ministers who supported the leave and remain campaigns before the 23 June referendum.
But the briefings against Hammond indicate he is seen by staunch Brexiters as the biggest obstacle to their plans, with the anonymous sources contrasting his worries with the more proactive stance of Rudd, who also backed remain.
Business groups have expressed concerns about a block on unskilled labour from the EU, especially for industries such as farming that rely on flexible numbers of seasonal workers.
Rudd is believed to be proposing exceptions to the bar on unskilled workers for those seeking seasonal work if there is a shortage of UK recruits.