Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted a Canada-style trade deal with the EU is off the table in a move that will enrage eurosceptic backbenchers.
Updating MPs in the House of Commons for the first time since the EU summit in Saltzburg, Raab said Brexit negotiations had “intensified” in recent weeks, with ministers hoping to strike a deal based on the Chequers accord ironed out by the Cabinet in the summer.
But he came under pressure from hardline Brexiteers, who are demanding a clean break on customs and for the government to strike a ‘Canada plus’ free trade deal.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said a free trade deal “can be made to work” with “pragmatic arrangements” at the border.
He said: “When will the government take this key that has been handed to them, keeping us in the prism of this negotiation, and admit that we can leave to an FTA basis which will make this a proper independent country able to control its domestic regulations, as well as its tariffs, and lead the world into a new era of free trade.”
But Raab hit back, telling Baker: “The EU are not offering us ‘Canada’, ‘super Canada’ or an ‘FTA’ without keeping to the commitment that we made when he was in government in December to come up with a legally binding backstop.
“That is a shortcut to no-deal.”
DUP MP Nigel Dodds also hit out at the Brexit Secretary, warning the government against negotiating any deal which separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
“We’ve been clear about that from day one,” he said. “That’s why we had the debacle in December. Let’s not repeat that mistake.”
The Brexiteer said it was “rubbish” that a border was a barrier to a free trade deal, adding “of course it can be managed”.
Raab replied the Prime Minister would stick to her commitment to “not do anything that would be a threat to the economic or constitutional integrity of the UK.”
Eurosceptic John Redwood said the UK should go further and pull out of Europe without a deal, saying it would free the UK from paying the £39bn withdrawal bill.
“We would have £39bn to spend on our priorities, which would be a huge boost to our economy and to our public services - a true Brexit bonus,” he said. “How can an agreement be better than that?”
Raab replied that a “no-deal outcome is suboptimal” and that the “superior outcome is to get a good deal with the EU.”
It came as members of the Brexiteer faction the European Research Group met in Westminster.
Some of the group are said to be ready to demand Theresa May face a leadership challenge.
The leader of the group, Jacob Rees Mogg, told HuffPost: “Canada is just as much on the table as Chequers is, because the EU has ruled out Chequers. It’s a negotiation.”
He added: “This is back to cake and eat it territory, only this time it will be the EU’s cake.”
In the statement in the Commons, Raab also said: “On the withdrawal agreement, while there remains some differences, we are closing in on workable solutions to all of the key outstanding issues, building on the progress we made during the summer on issues such as data and information, the treatment of ongoing police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters and ongoing union judicial administrative procedures after the date of exit.
“We have also been discussing our proposals on the linkage needed between the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship, and the EU is engaging constructively.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer bemoaned May’s absence from the Commons amid shouts of “Where is she?” from Opposition MPs.
The Labour frontbencher also said it would have been better if Raab had outlined “substantive progress” made by the UK, adding: “It’s like groundhog day - we get the same old story.
“The Secretary of State pretends that everything is going according to plan, it’s just a question of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, everything will be all right in the end. And if it isn’t? We just crash out with no deal, stockpile food and medicines, and declare that to be a great success.”
Starmer asked Raab to “scotch rumours” that the Government is not intending to publish an Irish border backstop proposal by next week before questioning if an “indefinite UK-wide customs union” would be part of the offer.
He also asked Raab to rule out a “vague or blind Brexit”, adding: “No government has the right to plunge the country into chaos as a result of its own failure.
“Time is running out but there is still time to change course and I urge the Secretary of State to do so.”
In reply to Starmer on the suggestion of an indefinite customs union, he said: “No, categorically that is not correct.”