A cabinet minister has denied reports that the government is considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said he did not “recognise” a story in the Sunday Times that ministers are eyeing up a closer relationship with Brussels.
Barclay, a former Brexit minister, told Sky News: “I don’t recognise this story at all.”
He said prime minister Rishi Sunak supported Brexit, adding it was important to use “Brexit freedoms” in various “high growth areas”.
Asked if he could support a Swiss-style relationship, Barclay replied: “Well, I didn’t support that. I want to maximise the opportunities that Brexit offers.”
Newspaper reports said the move could take place over the next decade in a bid to avoid the current barriers to trade.
Such a move would infuriate backbench Tory Brexiteers just a few years after Boris Johnson secured a deal with the EU.
Downing Street sources rejected the report but the ST suggested that behind closed doors some had indicated that a frictionless trading relationship required a Swiss-style arrangement.
This would not extend to a return to freedom of movement, according to the paper.
Switzerland and the EU have a close economic relationship based on a series of bilateral agreements, giving the country direct access to parts of the EU’s internal market including the free movement of people.
The UK is locked in long-running talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit arrangement for the region designed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
Unionists have opposed the protocol as impeding trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, placing a border in the Irish Sea.
This has resulted in the collapse of the Stormont Assembly, with top civil servants left to run government departments.
However, there have been renewed hopes in recent weeks that a deal can be secured and the relationship improved between the UK and the EU after years of tensions.
A Swiss-style veterinary agreement has been one of the options mooted by some on the EU side as a solution to the protocol dispute.
In the years after EU referendum, a so-called Swiss-style deal was one of many options for the UK after it voted to leave the bloc.
Barclay admitted that since Brexit there had been “difficulties” with “greater friction” over trade.
Asked whether Brexit had an adverse impact on UK trade, he said: “What I’m saying is you’ve got to look at the issues in terms of Brexit in the round.
“There are areas where there have been difficulties in terms of greater friction and we’re looking to work constructively with EU partners on that.
“But, equally, there are very significant opportunities as a result of Brexit.”
It comes after chancellor Jeremy Hunt this week admitted that Johnson’s Brexit deal caused damaging trade barriers with the EU, as he said immigration will be “very important” for the economy.
Hunt also insisted the UK would find a way to improve trading ties with the EU without rejoining the single market.
Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, was among those to criticise any suggestion that the UK could pursue a Swiss-style arrangement.
The Tory MP tweeted: “I very much hope and believe this isn’t something under consideration. We settled the question of leaving the European Union, definitively, in 2019.”
Lord Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator, also tweeted that he hoped if that the report was correct “the Government thinks better of these plans, fast”.