Liam Fox: EU trade deal must be settled before Irish border
The International Trade Secretary has stated today that no final decision can be reached on the border between Ireland and the UK until a trade deal is settled, defying an EU ultimatum that the border question must be settled within the next ten days. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has requested that the UK government gives a guarantee in writing that there would be no ‘hard’ border as a result of Brexit. Speaking to Sky's Niall Paterson, Liam Fox asserted that the UK would be leaving the single market and customs union, but argued that this did not necessarily mean the appearance of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic:
NP: Perhaps the biggest sticking point at the moment in moving on to Phase 2 is the issue of the Northern Irish border... To be honest I simply can't see a solution that allows free movement, that doesn't restrict trade on the island and still has us coming out of the customs union. Do you have a solution to the problem?
LF: We have put forward some ideas to the European Union as part of our negotiations... We've made very clear what the outline is of our interests. We don’t want there to be a hard border, but the United Kingdom is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market. We have always actually had exceptions for Ireland, whether it’s in our voting rights, our rights of residence in the UK. We have always accepted a certain asymmetry, and that will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the European Union. But we can’t get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state. And until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult, so the quicker that we can do that the better, [but] we are still in a position where the EU doesn’t want to do that.
On the outlook for the economy after Brexit, Fox argued that ‘there is a world beyond Europe and there are a lot of international investors who are looking at the United Kingdom as a very good place to put their money’. However, he cautioned that ‘one of the things that’s being overlooked is that we still have to up our trade... whether we’d have stayed in the EU or not, we’d have still had to make a lot of improvements in our trading performance’.
Ruth Davidson: EU disagreements do not reflect progress on Brexit
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has claimed that the quotes of European officials and politicians should not always be taken at face value as the Brexit negotiations enter one of their tensest moments so far. Ruth Davidson told Andrew Marr that ‘it's going to get pretty towsy in that negotiating room’, and that messages designed for a politician's home audience did not always reflect the reality of the situation:
RD: We know that this is one of the really difficult nitty gritty bits of the negotiation... and what we've been positing to the European Union is that we don't have to have something that's an off the shelf solution, because we are a different case to any other country that interacts with the EU. We're not Canada, we're not Norway... because we are the only country that has previously been a part of the European Union - that complies with every single rule and regulation - that will then sit outside of it... The people that walk up to the microphones and speak to their home audience don't always reflect the negotiation and the progress that is going on in the room. When it comes to European negotiations it's always a five-past-midnight job... You will see in two weeks time whether we've got to a point where we can have this resolved.
On the transitional deal set to be in place after 29th March 2019, Davidson said: ‘I think it's really important that we get the transitional deal nailed down. If we don’t make it through to the next two weeks to move on to that next phase then we are rapidly going to run out of time.’ When asked what would happen if Britain did run out of time, she opined ‘I don't think it means that the world has ended, but I do think it's a setback’.
John McDonnell: ‘A growing economy pays for itself’
The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has once again refused to comment on the likely cost of borrowing under a Labour government after claiming on Thursday that being asked for such figures was ‘trite journalism’. McDonnell apologised for the tone of his comments, but restated his argument to Robert Peston that growing the UK's economy would justify any extra borrowing incurred by Labour:
RP: The Institute for Fiscal Studies, we asked them what they thought the additional interest [for Labour's borrowing plans] would be, and they said - excluding nationalisation – they thought it would be around £2 billion a year, which I assume you don't think is a mad figure?
JM: The point I'm making – and I'm sorry if I annoyed people – the point I'm making is I didn't want the argument around a relatively low figure of what it would cost to undermine the real argument, which is this. That investment wisely invested in our infrastructure, tackling our productivity problem, growing our economy, pays for itself...
RP: Would you accept that £2 billion a year sounds about right to you?
JM: I can't predict it. I'm being straight with you here. As you know, government borrowing through bonds etc. at the moment, the rate is anything between 0.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent. I can't tell when we go into government what that rate will be. What I can say is that the rates are at historic lows, this is the time to borrow and this is the time to tackle that issue.
He insisted that he had told the truth to the public on the economy ‘all the way along’. When asked about Liam Fox's earlier comments on the Irish border, McDonnell replied: ‘The one thing that we don’t want to do is jeopardise any movement quickly, because we need movement to enable us to get into the proper trade negotiations’, adding ‘I’m hoping that isn’t a Downing Street sanctioned statement that he’s made’.
Barry Gardiner: No deadline for the deficit
The Shadow International Trade Secretary has declined to give a date for when Britain's budget deficit would be eliminated under a Labour government. His refusal comes after the Office for Budget Responsibility updated its official forecast, predicting that under the current government, the deficit would not be reduced to zero until 2031. In much the same vein as John McDonnell, Barry Gardiner refused to provide Andrew Marr with an estimate:
AM: Can you say when the deficit under your plans, will be eliminated?
BG: No, I'm not going to say that at all.
AM: But you're attacking the government for not being able to have an answer and you don't have an answer...
BG: No sorry, don't put words in my mouth... Anybody who wants to forecast what our economy is going to be like in 2031 here - 14, 15 years ahead of that date, when we have not even determined what the Brexit negotiations are going to look like - would be foolish. And you know that as well as I do.'
On the issue of the Irish border, Gardiner stated that ‘we are all desperately worried about this’, and added that ‘we must ensure that nothing is done that damages the Good Friday agreement. That to me is the bottom line and that's what everybody should keep in mind.’ On the UK remaining a member of the single market and customs union he said ‘we have not ruled those off the table, we [say] they are still options’.
Mairead McGuinness: UK should stay in the single market and customs union
And the Vice President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness has given her view on how to resolve the border dispute between the UK and Ireland. In a debate with the former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, McGuinness told Sarah Smith that the UK government should fight to maintain the status quo as closely as possible:
MM: I'm troubled this morning [by Liam Fox's comments] that the Irish issue will not be solved until the final stage, until we reach a decision on trade. I hope that the United Kingdom is not holding the Irish situation to ransom in these negotiations. It is far too serious and far too critical... We now have a situation on the island of Ireland and in Northern Ireland where we had built peace andt we're all working and hope to maintain that... but there are divisions between the two communities and they are now becoming deeper, and we have to work really hard to avoid that. And part of that is to make sure, as Theresa May said on Friday, she wants the situation to remain the same as it is today, post-Brexit. The only way to achieve that is to stay in the customs union and single market. That is the solution.