Michael Gove says British cabinet 'united' around a transitional free movement deal
THE British cabinet is "united" around a transitional Brexit deal to allow continued access to migrant labour and provide economic stability, Michael Gove has said.
The environment secretary, a prominent Brexiteer, said the government would take a "pragmatic" approach in response to suggestions Britain could maintain free movement for EU citizens during a transition period following the official separation from Brussels.
He said decisions on an "implementation period" would be made "in the best interests of our economy", while fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox said he was prepared to wait "another couple of years" for a full separation from Brussels.
Their comments indicated a widening of cabinet support for a transitional deal between the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 and a new trading arrangement being introduced.
But any such deal is likely to be viewed with suspicion by hardline Eurosceptics.
A report in The Times said Theresa May is ready to offer free movement for two years under a plan drawn up by Chancellor Philip Hammond, while The Guardian quoted "a senior cabinet source" as saying that the period could last for three or even four years.
It is thought that Mr Hammond believes he has won backing within the cabinet for a transition to prevent disruption to business caused by a sudden "cliff-edge" move to new arrangements on March 29 2019, when Brexit is due to happen.
"I know not just from agriculture but from other industries how important it is we ensure we have access to the high quality labour on which the success of our economy depends and, as the prime minister has made clear, as we leave the European Union we will have an implementation period which will ensure we continue to have not just access to labour, but the economic stability and certainty business requests, and that is something around which the government and the Cabinet are united," Mr Gove said.
Answering questions following his first speech as environment secretary, Mr Gove would not be drawn on the details but said the government wanted the process to be as smooth as possible.
Speaking in Woking, Surrey, he said: "I think when it comes to an implementation period, it should be driven by a pragmatic judgment about what we need in the best interests of our economy and in the best interests of guaranteeing a smooth exit from the EU, in line with the result the British people voted for just over a year ago."
Dr Fox, the international trade secretary, has said a trade deal with the EU should be the easiest in history because both sides currently had the same rules, but was relaxed about the prospect of a transitional period.
"Having waited 43 years, another couple of years – if we can get it to work well for the country and for our European partners, and we can do it for the stability of British business and for our own prosperity – that seems to me just a common sense thing to do," he told Sky News.
Some Brexit-backing Tory MPs expressed concerns about the possibility of free movement continuing beyond the date of separation from the EU.
Peter Bone told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "There's a complete difference between minor technical things that need to go on and major things like free movement.
"Free movement has to end no later than March 31 2019, and I think most Conservative MPs would say that, the country would say that and, absolutely the most important thing, I think Mrs May would say that."
Fellow Leave-backing Conservative MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said Britain would have to overcome its skills gap before cutting immigration.
The Berwick-upon-Tweed MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Numbers will start to reduce as we fix our skills gap and we work out with businesses what it is they need.
"Nobody wants to see a system where, if you can't find agricultural workers to pick your strawberries, you allow that business to fail. That is not the solution."
Ukip's interim leader Steve Crowther said: "Extending freedom of movement for two, three or four years produces no obvious benefit to anyone. It is an EU principle, so ending it in 2019 or 2023 makes no difference to them.
"Business wants certainty, and that comes from sticking to the timetable, negotiating robustly and introducing clear border control policies that enable us to access the skills we need.
"Since the election, Theresa May is badly holed and unseaworthy, and the Remainer Philip Hammond - who was on his way out of the door before June 8 - now sees an opportunity to fudge, delay and obfuscate until the end of the current parliament, to try and get the decision reversed."