LONDON — Former Chancellor George Osborne launched a scathing attack on Theresa May’s Brexit plan on Tuesday, describing her intention to take Britain out of the single market as “the biggest single act of protectionism” in the country’s history.
Osborne, who with former Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned passionately for Remain, told the British Chambers of Commerce that trade deals secured after Brexit would not fill the gap left by ditching the single market.
May said in a keynote speech in January that she intends to take Britain out of the European single market, as staying inside the free-trade arena would require Britain to continue with the free movement of EU citizens into Britain.
The PM said that she would pursue a clean break from the 28-nation bloc while Chancellor Philip Hammond told the House of Commons: “We will go forward understanding we cannot be members of the single market.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Osborne said:
“Let’s make sure that we go on doing trade with our biggest export market, otherwise withdrawing from the single market would be the biggest single act of protectionism in the history of United Kingdom and no amount of trade deals with New Zealand are going to replace the amount of trade we do with our European neighbours.”
Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and even some Tory MPs have urged May to consider retaining Britain’s membership of the single market, arguing that it would be tantamount to economic suicide to leave the country’s biggest export market.
Conservative MP Anna Soubry described the prospect of a leaving the single market — also known as hard Brexit — as a ‘bonkers’ agenda pushed by MPs in ‘denial’, when she spoke to BI at the party’s most recent conference.
However, a parliamentary effort to amend the Brexit bill so that the PM is required to keep Britain in the single market has been defeated both in the House of Commons and House of Lords.
Osborne added that although the British public had voted to leave the EU on June 23, the details of Britain’s departure from the 28-nation bloc are yet to be set in stone and remain up for debate.
“There were a whole set of other questions that we were not asked” on the referendum ballot paper, he said.
“The country has answered a question, which is do we want to leave the EU or not? They answered ‘yes we do’, and we’re leaving the European Union. In my view, that decision has been taken.
“There were a whole set of other questions that we were not asked — what do you want your immigration policy to look like, what do you want your trade policy to look like, what do you want your business policy to look like? They are now before us as a country and we’re going to have to make decisions on them.
“That’s where the devil’s going to be in the details.”
Osborne went on to say:
“Take immigration — do you want to have access to a skilled workforce around the world that wants to come and work in Britain, do you, as David Davis was saying the other day, want to have people who are maybe not so highly skilled coming to fill gaps in agriculture or catering and the like? That’s going to be the immigration decision we’ve got to take.
“Do you want to go on paying farming subsidies paid for by other taxpayers, do you want to make sure industry competes in a fair and free market or are you going to allow secretaries of states to make decisions to support individual companies and is that a good thing? There are a whole range of questions and my sense is that there’s quite a lot of fighting the last war — fighting the referendum campaign that’s taken place where there was a clear decision.
“Now we need to have the debate about immigration, where I think it’s important that we have access to skilled immigration from around the world and we’re a magnet for talent.
“It’s important our universities continue to attract students from abroad — indeed the Government boasts that one in seven of all the world leaders were educated in Britain at some point. Well great, let’s make [sure] that continues to be the case.”
May is set to initiate the UK’s formal exit from the EU next month by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
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