Liam Fox has admitted that no Brexit deal would be “damaging” for the UK in a marked change of tone from the International Trade Secretary.
The Brexit-backing Cabinet Minister previously claimed the UK could “survive” without signing a free trade deal with the EU.
That would see the UK trading with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms – meaning an average tariff of 5% on all goods, with some sectors such as food and agriculture seeing duties of 20% or more.
Prior to the disastrous election in June, Theresa May repeatedly claimed the no deal scenario was better than a bad deal, but her tone has softened in recent months.
Brexit Secretary David Davis told Conservative members at their annual conference in Manchester the Government was preparing for no deal, but that was only as a back-up plan if the negotiations with Brussels fail.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 ahead of his own speech to the conference, Fox admitted the UK would suffer from a “no deal” Brexit.
“I think that would be damaging for the whole of Europe, not just for the EU, for the UK as well,” he said, adding: “But I want us to make it very clear that we seek an agreement but not at any price.”
He also rounded on Brussels for failing to make progress on future talks, saying the EU was “very obsessed about money” in demanding any Brexit bill be sorted before a EU-UK trade deal could be discussed.
Both Fox and Davis used their speeches to appeal for optimism about Brexit amid a low-key party conference with members still processing the loss of a Commons majority in the June Election.
Fox blasted Brexit “naysayers” for getting it wrong about a post Leave-vote economic downturn, telling Tory members: “Doesn’t it annoy you when people preface any piece of good news with the phrase ‘despite Brexit’. Well, doesn’t it?
“So let’s just have a reality check.
“We have the highest number of people in employment ever, ‘despite Brexit’.
“Last year we had the highest inward investment to the UK ever, creating over 75,000 new jobs and safeguarding over 32,000 others, ‘despite Brexit’.”
Davis told the audience the public “are fed up that people in Westminster seem to be stuck in an endless debate while the rest of the world wants to get a move on.”
He added: “Over a year later I still get people coming up to me every day saying: ‘best of luck’ or ‘get a good deal for us Mr Davis’, and even, ‘Surely it can’t be that difficult?’
“And that’s just the Cabinet.”
The Brexit Secretary said the Government expected to achieve a “good deal” with the EU, but added: “If the outcome of the negotiation falls short of the deal that Britain needs we will be ready for the alternative.
“That is what a responsible Government does. Anything else would be a dereliction of duty.
“So there is a determined exercise underway in Whitehall devoted to contingency arrangements so that we are ready for any outcome.
“Not because it is what we seek, but because it needs to be done.”
Following the speeches, former Brexit minister David Jones told a pro-Brexit fringe meeting that the government could be “heading for no deal, through no fault of our own”.
The Welsh MP said: ”We triggered Article 50 just over six months ago and according to the timetable Michel Barnier has set out for these negotiations we have some 12 months to go until we arrive at the crucial point where we must have decided upon our future arrangements with Europe.
Jones said the government should set out its position paper on plans in the event of a no-deal as soon as possible.
“I believe that the UK has set out a very reasonable position...making it clear that what we sought was a free trade agreement of the kind the EU has already struck, for example, with Canada,” he added.
“We have to make our position very clear, showing what we will do if no deal is struck. I think that we have to make it public very soon, and we have to make it very clear to the negotiators on the EU side, that if we see no progress towards that free trade deal, then we will take it that they are not interested in a deal and we will simply proceed with them - as we do with the rest of the world - on WTO terms.”