Jeremy Hunt issues 'belt up' message to Boris Johnson and other cabinet colleagues over Brexit splits

Health secretary claims public spats undermine Theresa May’s negotiating position in Brussels – but critics say she hasn’t got one

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 14 May 2018 12:06
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Jeremy Hunt: Brexit debates should happen in private

Jeremy Hunt has issued a “belt up” message to Boris Johnson and other cabinet colleagues, after public spats about the deadlock over customs rules after Brexit.

The health secretary urged fellow ministers to “have these debates in private” – openly criticising the foreign secretary for calling Theresa May’s preferred option “crazy”.

The order came after Michael Gove also trashed the “customs partnership” model, arguing it would break the prime minister’s pledge to “take back control” after Brexit.

“I do think that it is important that we have these debates in private,” said Mr Hunt, a May loyalist.

“Not just because of collective responsibility, which is what democracy depends on, but also because this is a negotiation. On the EU side, if they see divisions in the open, they will exploit that.”

On Monday, David Miliband, the former Labour foreign secretary, ridiculed the idea that any undermining of Ms May weakened her negotiating hand, saying: “What’s more destructive for a government position than having no position?”

But Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have to recognise that we are not the only people who read the papers in Britain and we need to give Theresa May some space.

“If we are going to have these lively debates, we should have them in private because that will strengthen Theresa May’s negotiating hand.”

Asked if his message to Mr Johnson was to “belt up”, Mr Hunt said: “You could say that. I’d say he is a marvellous foreign secretary but let’s work as a team.”

The health secretary’s intervention came as ministers prepared for a further meeting of the inner cabinet, but with no expectation of agreeing a way forward on customs this week.

On Sunday, Mr Gove, the environment secretary, joined Mr Johnson in publicly criticising the customs partnership option, which would see the UK collect tariffs for Brussels.

“What the customs partnership requires the British government to do is in effect to act as the tax collector and very possibly the effective deliverer of regulation for the European Union,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Greg Clark, the business secretary, has criticised the alternative maximum facilitation, or “max fac”, model, which would threaten an open border in Ireland.

Damian Green, the prime minister’s former effective deputy, suggested Britain may have to stay in the current customs union longer – extending the transition period past the end of 2020.

The idea has been flatly rejected by Mr Gove and other arch Brexiteers, but Mr Green said: “This is not the time for members of the cabinet or anyone else inside the Conservative Party to indulge in ideology.

“I think the most likely endpoint will be some of what’s called the maximum facilitation, some variant of that I, personally, am not yet convinced that you could have that in place by the end of 2020.”

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