Jeremy Hunt has failed to deny he was the source behind a claim the UK will seek a “Swiss-style deal” to improve the Brexit deal – but insisted he had not shared.
Questioned by MPs, the Chancellor said: “I don’t support it, I’ve never thought about it,” tearing up Boris Johnson’s deal despite being blamed for a major collapse in GDP and cross-channel trade.
But Mr Hunt has repeatedly failed to deny that he or a Treasury official briefed journalists ahead of last weekend’s story, which reignited Conservative wars across Europe.
Instead, he said, “I’m not, and the Treasury Department is not, the source of suggestions that we want to move away from the trade and cooperation agreement or not want sovereign control.”
Mr Hunt stuck by his claim that the “vast majority” of trade barriers can be removed in the coming years without rewriting the 2020 deal – but without explaining how.
On Monday, No 10 did not reiterate that claim and Rishi Sunak vowed: “Under my leadership, Britain will not develop a relationship with Europe based on alignment with EU laws.”
The ‘Swiss-style deal’ rumor has raised suspicions from Tory backbenchers that Mr Hunt – a Remainer in 2016 – is spearheading a Treasury Department attempt to soften Brexit in a quest for economic growth.
Nigel Farage jumped on the controversy, calling it a “treason” and claiming the Conservatives would be “destroyed in a way they cannot contemplate at the next general election”.
But the government is in a race against time to show voters it can avert the projected 4 percent contraction in GDP at a 15 percent trade loss from the existing deal.
In the Commons Treasury Committee, Mr Hunt dodged a request for a “yes/no answer” on whether The Sunday Times History was briefed by the Treasury Department.
Harriett Baldwin, their Tory leader, told him: “It sounds like the rabbits suddenly going for the front page The Sunday Times could have started their course from the Treasury.”
The Chancellor said the committee “needed to speak The Sunday Timesvia his sources – but insisted his autumn statement made it clear he wanted to deviate from EU rules and not conform to them.
“My position and the government’s position has always been to support the TCA, full regulatory independence,” he said.
“And I think you can look at the fall statement to see what I believe, because I actually did it,” Mr Hunt added, pointing to “Solvency II reforms” to unlock investment from insurance companies.
The Chancellor added: “I do not support an agreement that means a departure from the TCA, which means that we do not negotiate or decide on the regulations that we want as sovereign equals, I have never considered it.”