A Tory minister has complained that MPs asking questions about Brexit in the Commons “undermine” deadlocked negotiations on a trade deal with the EU.
Penny Mordaunt claimed that queries about how ready the UK is for the end of the transition period “undermine the possibility of us getting the deal we all want”.
The Cabinet Office minister said the outlook for a deal was “gloomy”, despite Boris Johnson and the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen agreeing to restart negotiations following a crunch dinner summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
Negotiations are now going down to the wire, with the UK due to default to World Trade Organisation terms for trade with the EU from January 1 – widely predicted to be the most damaging outcome – if agreement cannot be found.
With the outcome of the talks set to exercise a huge influence over the UK’s future over the coming years, shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves asked for an update on progress in an urgent question to the government.
But responding, Mordaunt accused MPs of risking the outcome of the negotiations by hauling ministers to the Commons to answer questions about them.
To the groans of opposition MPs, she said: “I appreciate also that members of the House are very concerned about these matters, ministers are always happy to come and answer questions and update as much as we can on these issues.
“But I would say to all colleagues, and particularly those on the opposition benches, that in calling urgent questions or asking other questions on the floor of the House with the express mission of trying to undermine our negotiating position by pretending we are not ready for any outcome that these negotiations might yield I think is not helping secure the outcome... and it is certainly not in the interests of this country.
“These are serious times and nobody should be doing anything which may undermine the possibility of us getting the deal we all want.”
It came after Reeves said there is a sense of “huge dismay” that progress was not achieved in Brussels on Wednesday.
The Labour frontbencher told MPs: “The country was hoping for a breakthrough last night, yet there was none. There is a sense of huge dismay as we all wanted to hear significant progress but we heard more about the prime minister’s meal than we did about his deal.
“In fact, we have not heard from the prime minister at all, even though he was supposed to be taking charge of these negotiations.
“On Sunday we’ll have just 18 days to go until the end of the transition period, how has it come to this? Businesses desperately trying to plan need to know what on earth is going on.
“If the talks break down and the government pursues no-deal, what happens next?
“Will the government look to swiftly restart negotiations or does the government believe there should be no talks next year, or even for the rest of this parliament? Or, have the government not thought that far ahead?”
The exchanges came as the European Commission set out contingency measures aimed at coping with the disruption if no trade deal can be agreed with the UK.
The measures would ensure basic reciprocal air and road connectivity between the EU and the UK – and allow for the possibility of reciprocal fishing access.
They include a proposal on “basic air connectivity” for six months, provided the UK does the same.
A proposal on aviation safety would allow various safety certificates to continue to apply in the EU, avoiding the grounding of aircraft.
Another measure would cover freight and passenger travel on the roads for six months, as long as the UK reciprocated.
In a more contentious move, Brussels proposed a 12-month period for continued reciprocal access to fishing waters, one of the key sticking points in trade talks.
A commission statement said: “Disruption will happen with or without an agreement between the EU and the UK on their future relationship.
“This is the natural consequence of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the union and to no longer participate in the EU single market and customs union.”
Von der Leyen addeed: “Negotiations are still ongoing.
“However, given that the end of the transition is very near, there is no guarantee that if and when an agreement is found, it can enter into force on time.
“Our responsibility is to be prepared for all eventualities, including not having a deal in place with the UK on January 1.”