Jeremy Hunt refuses to deny briefing that government wants Swiss-style ties with EU

Chancellor says he or Treasury was not source of alleged briefing and he did not support ‘moving away’ from Brexit agreement

Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly refused to deny that the Treasury briefed a newspaper that the government was considering a closer, Swiss-style relationship with the EU, while insisting that this had never been the government’s plan.

In sometimes confusing exchanges before the Commons Treasury committee, the chancellor said the UK could never, like Switzerland, be in a position to accept EU regulations, or give way on other areas such as freedom of movement.

However, Hunt did cite the Swiss border with the EU as a possible model for future UK arrangements with the bloc in terms of using technology to make trade easier.

At the start of Hunt’s first appearance before the committee, Harriett Baldwin, the Tory MP who now chairs it, asked him if the Treasury was the source for a Sunday Times story last weekend that said “senior government figures” were considering a Swiss-type approach.

Declining Baldwin’s invitation to give a yes or no answer, Hunt began by saying he fully backed the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) reached by Boris Johnson with Brussels.

He said: “We do not support, we would not contemplate, I do not support, I have never contemplated, any agreement which means moving away from the TCA, which means that we are not negotiating or deciding the regulations that we want as sovereign equals, paying unnecessary money to the EU, or indeed compromising on freedom of movement.

“That has always been my position as chancellor, and I would suggest that for politicians actions speak louder than words.”

But in what appeared to be very carefully chosen words, Hunt refused four times to rule out the Treasury being the source for the paper, only saying that what the article set out about a possible move to a Swiss-type arrangement was not on the cards.

“With respect to the story in the Sunday Times, if you’re saying was the Treasury, was I, the source for any suggestion that we should seek to renegotiate the TCA, to move it towards an agreement more like the one with Switzerland, the answer is no,” he said.

He added: “If you are saying, do I believe that we could remove the physical barriers to trade in the way that happens on the Franco-Swiss border, the Norway-Sweden border, in a way that is relevant for the Northern Ireland protocol issues on the island of Ireland, that’s been my public position for some time.”

Hunt’s simultaneously unequivocal and yet opaque stance is unlikely to completely reassure Brexit-minded Conservative MPs who recoiled at the Sunday Times story, many of whom do not trust Hunt, a former remain supporter, on the issue.

Baldwin sought to push Hunt on what he meant, saying “I heard a yes there” as to whether or not the Treasury was the source of the article.

Hunt replied: “I am not the source of any suggestion that we want to move away from the TCA or not have sovereign control of our regulations. If you’re saying do I believe technology can reduce barriers to trade, yes I do, and I think that could be a very important way forward. In the context of people saying that Brexit trade barriers are the cause of our problems, my answer is I think technology will be a solution.”

Asked again to rule out that the Treasury at the very least set “hares running” over the issue, Hunt said: “I can rule out any suggestion that it has ever been the government’s intention to move away from the TCA, to move to a situation where we don’t have full control of our regulations, to compromise freedom of movement.”

Contributor

Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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