Former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson has issued a stinging rebuke to international trade secretary Liam Fox over his claims that the European Union is trying to blackmail the UK into paying an excessive divorce bill to leave the bloc.
Fox made the comments in Tokyo, where he was on a trade mission with prime minister Theresa May. They came in the wake of dissatisfaction voiced by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who said insufficient progress had been made with the first stage of negotiations – which covers citizens’ rights and the financial settlement – for talks to progress on to the future EU-UK trade relationship.
The cabinet minister and hard-Brexit proponent said the UK “can't be blackmailed into paying a price on the first part” so that progress can be made on future trading relationships. He subsequently told the BBC that global investors were “getting impatient” to find out what the post-Brexit arrangements would look like.
Macpherson – now Baron Macpherson of Earls Court – stepped down as HM Treasury permanent secretary weeks before the EU referendum after more than a decade in the post. He said Fox’s observations betrayed an air of desperation.
“’Blackmail’ is the perpetual cry of the smaller negotiator with the weaker hand,” the crossbench peer wrote on Twitter. He added: “#getagrip”.
"Blackmail" is the perpetual cry of the smaller negotiator with the weaker hand. #getagrip
— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) September 1, 2017
Civil Service World’s sister title PoliticsHome.com reported that the financial settlement battleground currently ranged from the £30bn contribution believed to be favoured by Brexit secretary David Davis’ negotiating team to an EU-side upper limit of £92bn. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has suggested a £55bn contribution, it added.
Fox’s comments came as MPs on the all party parliamentary group on EU Relations released a report calling for the UK’s continued membership of the EU customs union, and criticising the government’s “irresponsible” and “vague” proposals on customs included in last month’s position statement.
The report said leaving the customs union would cause a “£25bn a year hit to the UK economy” and be tantamount to a “reckless and economically dangerous self-inflicted wound”.
In the foreword to the report, committee co-chairs Labour MP Chuka Umunna and Conservative MP Anna Soubry, who both campaigned for remain in last year's referendum, said ministers had failed to show the same level of pragmatism on customs union that other key Brexit areas had benefited from in recent weeks.
“Their hasty choice to leave the customs union, and their lack of realism and preparation regarding real alternatives, increases the chances that we could face a crash into chaos and confusion in our customs system after Brexit,” they said.
“One of the reasons consistently put forward for leaving the EU was to reduce the amount of red tape but the new, more complex, proposals look nothing short of a Brexit bureaucracy bombshell for British businesses.
“In our view, a total commitment to full membership of the customs union is what is required in the national interest, not just for a transitional period but for the long-term future.”