Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have come under attack from a fellow Cabinet minister for rounding on businesses which warn of the dangers of a hard Brexit.
In a fresh sign of Tory splits, Business Secretary Greg Clark rallied to the defence of firms like plane manufacturer Airbus, which last week threatened it would pull out of the UK if trade barriers were erected after the UK quits the EU.
Hunt had said that the company’s warnings had been “inappropriate”, while Johnson was revealed last week to have said “f*ck business” when asked about their worries over customs.
But in reply to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Clark appeared to flatly contradict his colleagues, saying that Airbus “deserves to be listened to with respect”.
The minister – who is in charge of the UK’s industrial strategy – said that the ‘risk assessment’ issued by the aircraft company had warned that any “significant” increase in trade “friction” after Brexit would have real consequences.
“This is completely consistent with what every part of the industry collectively has been saying,” Clark said.
To Labour cheers, he added: “Any company and any industry that supports the livelihoods of so many working people in this country deserves to be listened to with respect.”
Clark then underlined the danger to jobs posed by any ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘no deal’ exit.
“This is a sector, let’s be clear, that is one of our proudest strengths. The excellence that we have needs to be nurtured and cherished. So I do take seriously the representations that all businesses make.
“For this reason: we are not talking not about speculation, not about visions for the future, we are talking about the reality of the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people across the country.”
Clark insisted that Airbus’s message was aimed as much at Brussels as at London and said Theresa May had herself been clear that she too didn’t want any extra barriers to trade.
“I hope that message will be heard in Brussels as well as in this country,” he said.
“All of us on this side of the House recognise that…[business] have a right to be heard. Sometimes we will not agree with everything they say.”
Anna Soubry, the Tory pro-European MP, asked for an assurance that the Conservatives remain the party of business, and that businesses should be free to speak out without being criticises. Clark replied: “Yes and yes.”
Labour’s Mark Tami, whose constituency has 6,500 high skilled jobs reliant on an Airbus factory, said it was appalling that such firms were “shouted down by Cabinet ministers”.
“Airbus’ concerns are real and shared by many other manufacturers like BMW and Siemens,” he said.
Welsh Minister Guto Bebb also hit back at Hunt and Johnson, seizing on suspicions that both were using the issue to boost their hopes of leading the Tory party.
“The dismissive attitudes shown towards our business community by senior Cabinet ministers is both unworthy and inflammatory,” he told BBC Wales.
“Do the leadership aspirations of multi-millionaires trump the need to listen to the employers and employees of this country?”
Asked if the Prime Minister backed Hunt or Clark over their approach to business worries about Brexit, her official spokesman insisted the PM was regularly in touch with companies big and small to hear their opinions.
He told HuffPost: “It’s important we listen to their voice and we continue to do so.”
EU Council President Donald Tusk met May at Downing Street on Monday and promptly joked that sorting out Brexit was a lot harder than England winning at the World Cup.
“It is not my intention to spoil your mood,” he said. “Unfortunately we are dealing with something much more difficult than the game against Panama.”