A six-month extension to the UK’s Brexit transition period is now “inevitable” because of the need to prioritise the fight against coronavirus, former Tory cabinet minister Sir David Lidington has warned.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Week In Westminster, Theresa May’s former deputy said that the British public would not find it unreasonable to allow a short delay to give more time to hammer out a comprehensive new deal with the EU.
And he suggested that the UK’s ability to import crucial protective equipment for NHS and social care staff would be damaged if there was a ‘no-deal’ outcome after the end of the year.
Talks between the UK and Brussels have resumed in recent weeks, with Downing Street and senior ministers firm in their stance that there should be no extension of the December 2020 deadline for ending the transition period.
Dominic Raab underlined the position in prime minister’s question time and Michael Gove insisted to MPs that it was “perfectly possible” to get a new trade and security relationship agreed before the end of the year.
The Tory manifesto committed the party to opposing any extension and the end-of-year date has now passed into law.
But with just weeks before the June deadline when the UK can last request an extension, some officials on both sides of the English channel believe the sheer complexity of a new deal means they are running out of time.
Lidington, who spent years as Europe minister and oversaw much of the EU negotiations under May, said that both business and the public would be prepared to see a delay because of the need to focus on Covid-19.
“Both in London, and in Brussels and in every European capital, talented officials are being taken off Brexit duty to go and work on COVID and frankly I think that’s exactly what the people in this country and every European country would be expecting their governments to do.
“I’ve thought for some while, however much people don’t want it, both in Brussels and in London, they’ll come to the view that some kind of agreed extension is probably just inevitable.”
“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests to delay things indefinitely. If there had to be an extension, perhaps it might only be six months or so.”
Lidington, who stepped down from parliament at the election, said that the June EU summit, which is meant to include a ‘stocktake’ of the Brexit talks, was useful in galvanising the drive towards getting a deal. But the priority for all governments was fighting the disease, he said.
“COVID is soaking up the lion’s share rightly of government attention, time and bandwidth, in every European country.
“It is the number one risk that business throughout Europe is having to deal with, at the moment so I don’t think that the public in any European country, including Britain would find it unreasonable if there was a need to say, look because of Covid we just need to agree to extend this for a bit”
While some in business and many Tory MPs argue that further uncertainty of a delay would be damaging, the former minister said that he was getting a different message from firms worried that a no-deal scenario could make the coronavirus crisis even worse for trading and job security.
“The voices I hear from British business is rather different from what you hear from some political quarters, which is that a cliff-edge at the end of 2020 would be seriously bad for them.
“I think we know already that about a third of the economy is on life support at the moment, it’s going to be tough for quite a lot of businesses to recover at all, let alone recover quickly.
“They want an agreement, which is a continued trade with the rest of Europe. That allows goods to go to and fro without customs and tariffs, and with as few checks as it is possible to negotiate.
“And one thing we’ve learned from COVID is that not only are our exports important but our imports and getting them in smoothly, things like PPE, is really important to our well being as well.”
Any move to extend the transition would need a vote in the Commons to change the law, a prospect that could be seized on by Tory rebels to block it.