LONDON (Reuters) - British finance minister Philip Hammond said on Friday that the country should take a pragmatic approach to Brexit, a day after facing criticism from fellow Conservatives for telling businesses that Brexit would only bring “very modest” changes.
Britain is due to leave the European Union in March 2019, but there are deep divisions in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and party about what sort of relationship should replace 46 years of membership.
Hammond, who voted to stay in the EU and is widely seen as the most pro-European voice among May’s senior ministers, said on Friday he was increasingly confident Britain would be able to get very good access to EU markets after Brexit.
“The smaller the changes that happen to our access to markets and to the frictions at the borders, the better,” he told reporters at an annual meeting of top business leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
People who objected to his approach were disrespecting the thinking behind British voters’ June 2016 decision to leave the EU, Hammond said.
“There are people on both sides of this argument who do not support us in our intention to deliver the Brexit that the British people have mandated in a pragmatic way that protects British businesses and British jobs,” he said.
“We have got to stick to the middle way, which is negotiating the maximum access we can get to European markets, compatible with the red lines that we have already set out about repatriating control of our laws, our borders and our money,” he added.
On Thursday, a source in May’s office rebuked Hammond after he spoke at a business event in Davos, saying the changes that Britain will undergo cannot be described as “very modest”.
On Friday, a spokesman for May said she had full confidence in Hammond.
May was widely reported in the run-up to June 2017’s election to be planning to sack Hammond, only to keep him after her authority was damaged by her failure to win an outright parliamentary majority.
Brexit minister David Davis was setting out the government’s position on a transition period in a speech on Friday, looking to offer something for both those who want to keep close ties with the EU after leaving and those who want a more radical break.
Reporting by David Milliken and Kate Holton; editing by Stephen Addison