David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, stoked tensions within Conservative party ranks on Tuesday when he said that Theresa May was seeking a future relationship between Britain and the EU that included “regulatory alignment”.
Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, has argued that one of the biggest benefits of Brexit is for Britain to adopt a looser regulatory regime with lower taxes, allowing it to strike trade deals around the world.
But Mr Davis told MPs that as part of a search for a deal on the vexed issue of the Irish border, the British government was willing to align some UK-wide regulations to those of the EU.
“Any regulatory alignment we get as part of a Brexit deal for Northern Ireland will apply for the whole country,” he said.
The comments brought Conservative divisions over Europe back into the open just as the government prepares to debate what kind of Brexit it seeks — one closer to the EU or more detached from the bloc, a so called hard Brexit.
Mr Davis’s remarks — which build on past British suggestions that some UK regulations after Brexit will the same as or equivalent to EU rules — were intended to reassure the Democratic Unionist party, whose 10 MPs prop up Mrs May’s government, that Northern Ireland would not be treated differently to the rest of the UK in any Brexit deal.
Mrs May hopes such commitments will help persuade Arlene Foster, DUP leader, to drop her veto over progress on Brexit talks. Downing Street said it was still “confident” that Mrs May could finalise a divorce deal in Brussels by the end of the week, allowing discussions to move on to post-Brexit relations.
Mrs Foster had warned Mrs May she could not sign up to any deal that would put Northern Ireland in a different regulatory category inside the UK; she said the original draft that she rejected would have created “a border in the Irish Sea”, and that the Brexit deal came as “a big shock” to her when she saw it on Monday.
Mr Davis’s comments will inflame the tensions in the Conservative party, with the party split from top to bottom over the nature of the UK’s future trade relationship with Europe. Mrs May’s cabinet has yet to hold a formal discussion on the issue, although the government has flatly ruled out continued membership of the EU’s customs union and single market.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Conservative Eurosceptic MP, said that regulatory divergence should be an “indelible” red line.
But Mr Davis replied: “The red line for me is delivering the best deal for Brexit.”
He added: “Alignment isn’t harmonisation, it isn’t having exactly the same rules, it’s sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection, all of that sort of thing as well, and that’s what we’re aiming at.”
But Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, told the BBC: “I think the vast majority of the party genuinely would be concerned if we box ourselves into an arrangement where we have no flexibility at all about the way we set our own rules and regulations after we leave the European Union.”
Ireland, by contrast, argues that the only way to align rules with the EU is to prevent any regulatory divergence whatsoever with the bloc.
The EU is also expected to demand a close adherence to its norms if Britain is to secure tariff-free access to the single market, raising the prospect that the UK could end up as a “rule taker”.
Mrs Foster refused to meet Mrs May in Westminster on Tuesday and the two leaders failed to speak by phone, even though the call had been trailed by Downing Street in the morning.
The UK prime minister is hoping to return to the EU capital before the end of the week to strike a deal in good time ahead of next week’s European Council, although Thursday looks like the earliest realistic date.
Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, said Britain should keep on the table the option of staying in the customs union, with some in the Labour party arguing the party should commit to such a policy.
Owen Smith, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, is understood to have argued at a shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday that Labour should consider changing its position and endorse the UK staying in the single market and customs union.
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