Rishi Sunak has rejected any move to rebuild damaged trade with the EU that would undermine the UK’s freedoms, insisting Brexit is “delivering” for the country.
Speaking to the CBI conference, the prime minister was asked how he would deliver on the chancellor’s claim that the “vast majority” of barriers – blamed for a 15 per cent plunge in trade – can be removed.
Jeremy Hunt’s comments have alarmed many Tories, despite the government rejecting suggestions that it will pursue a closer “Swiss-style” agreement with Brussels.
But Mr Sunak insisted: “Let me be unequivocal about this. Under my leadership, the UK will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
The prime minister pointed to control of borders and new trade deals, claiming: “Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefit and opportunities.”
He also rejected the CBI’s call for fixed-term visas to allow businesses to bring in more overseas workers to plug labour shortages – insisting his priority is to curb illegal, cross-Channel migration.
The British people must have “trust and confidence that the system works and is fair” before a wider conversation about immigration, Mr Sunak told business leaders.
The “Swiss-style deal” rumour has threatened to reignite the Tories’ Brexit wars – despite it being highly unlikely the EU would offer such an arrangement, even if the UK wanted it.
Nigel Farage has called it a “betrayal”, claiming the Conservatives would be “destroyed at the next general election in a way that they cannot begin to contemplate”.
However, the government is under pressure to explain how it will mitigate the forecast 4 per cent hit to GDP, with a 15 per cent loss of trade, from Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit deal.
The CBI has pointed to a lack of workers as a key reason for its warning that last week’s autumn statement – while reversing Liz Truss’s blunders – had no plan for growth.
But Mr Sunak told the Birmingham conference: “The number one priority right now, when it comes to migration, is to tackle illegal migration,” – pointing to the small boats crisis.
Asked if, despite the clashes over Brexit and migration, he would still say the Tories are the “party of business”, he replied: “Yes, unequivocally, unequivocally.”
The prime minister did promise “one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly-skilled people”, with a push to bring in artificial intelligence experts”.
“We cannot allow the world’s top AI talent to be drawn to America or China. That’s why….we are launching a programme to identify and attract the world’s top 100 young talents on AI.”
Mr Sunak said “part of the reason we ended the free movement of labour was to rebuild public consent in our immigration system”.
“If we’re going to have a system that allows businesses to access the best and brightest from around the world, we need to do more to give the British people trust and confidence that the system works and is fair. That means tackling illegal migration,” he argued.
Downing Street later said that the government would always seek enhancements to trade arrangements, but not if they conflicted with the “fundamentals” of the Brexit deal.
Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt were “absolutely” in agreement on the government’s approach to the EU, said the spokesperson.
“There are fundamental aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which we would not accept any movement on,” said the spokesperson. “We will never again have to accept a relationship which would see a return to freedom of movement, unnecessary payments to the EU or that jeopardises the full benefit of trade deals we are pursuing.
“As with any relationship with any country or trading bloc, we will obviously want to make sure that it continues to suit the UK’s interests, but that should not be misinterpreted as a rowing back or a weakening of the UK’s position.”
He added: “It’s obviously in both our and the EU’s interest to do whatever is possible to boost trade between the two sides, recognising that there are fundamental areas which we will not be willing to change, such as freedom of movement.”
The spokesperson said that companies should look to home-grown workers to fill vacancies, rather than relying on migrants.
“We do want to attract the right people to our country with the right sets of skills, but we are not going to solely use migration to meet all these vacancies,” he said.
“That wouldn’t be the right approach. We want to ensure that British businesses are investing in the British workforce.”