Hunt admitted that Brexit may have to be delayed.
- He played down prospects for the UK being able to put new proposals to the EU for resolving the backstop anytime soon.Speaking about the next steps for the government, he said:
The first thing we have to do is demonstrate that our commitment to the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement, is absolute. And we will do that.
Secondly, we have to show that any solution that changes the backstop won’t lead to us trying to access the single market by the back door. And we recognise that the way that we access the single market, because we are not going to be embracing free movement, will change.
If we can overcome those two issues, which I think we can, then I think we will be able to have substantive discussions.
But this is not going to happen in the next few days. We have to put these proposals together, we have to work them up, we have to go through them in detail with our partners in the EU.
This is significant because Theresa May has already said that, if no deal is reached by Wednesday 13 February, she will make a statement to MPs, and table an amendable motion to be debated the following day (ie, a fortnight today). Hunt’s comments implied that he does not expected a deal before then, and that the debate will go ahead. The EU has already made it clear, from its reaction to the Commons votes on Tuesday, thatit is not about to offer a compromiseand today’s Times even says that “Angela Merkel will ‘go to the edge of the precipice’ with Theresa May as the European Union prepares to reject any change to the withdrawal agreement in time for a crucial vote in two weeks.”Bruno Waterfield’sstory (paywall)goes on: “Diplomatic sources said the German chancellor believed that people needed “to look into the abyss before a deal is done at five to midnight — that is how she works”.
- Hunt refused to back what Greg Clark, the business secretary told ITV’s Peston programme last night about technical solutions to the Irish border problem being unavailable. The UK government is calling for “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, and one option would using new technology to avoid the need for physical controls at the border. But Clark told Peston last night that he did not think these solutions were available. He said:
I’ve visited the border between Norway and Sweden, one country outside the EU, one country inside, they do have physical checks there. So I myself don’t see [a technological solution] being currently available but I don’t want to pour cold water on an attempt by people who are on different sides of the argument to come together to try to find a way forward.
When Hunt was asked if he agreed, he refused to endorse what Clark said. Instead he said:
[Clark] has got a view, and lots of people have got a view.
- Hunt said the idea that the government was not committed to the Good Friday agrement was “distressing” and “nonsense”.He said:
We have to show the EU, and show Ireland, that our commitment to the Belfast, Good Friday agreement, is absolutely unconditional. In fact, it is quite distressing for people like me and you, who grew up in the 1980s with bombs going off in Harrods or in Hyde Park and all over the country — any suggestion that we would ever waver in our support for the peace process, which was the greatest achievement of both John Major and Tony Blair is absolutely nonsense.
Hunt was responding toIan Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, saying on Tuesday night that the vote calling for an alternative to the backstop showed that the Conservative paryt had “effectively ripped apart the Good Friday agreement”. This claim has clearly infuriated Tory MPs, who repeatedly raised it in the Commons chamber yesterday.