The UK cabinet is “united” around a transitional Brexit deal to allow continued access to migrant labour, Michael Gove has said.
The Environment Secretary, a prominent Brexiteer, said the government would be “pragmatic” in response to suggestions Britain could maintain free movement for EU citizens during a transition period following the official separation from Brussels.
He said decisions on an “implementation period” would be made “in the best interests of our economy”, while fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox said he was prepared to wait “another couple of years” for a full separation from Brussels.
Their comments indicated a widening of cabinet support for a transitional deal between the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 and a new trading arrangement being introduced.
But any such deal is likely to be viewed with suspicion by hardline Eurosceptics.
A report in The Times said Prime Minister Theresa May is ready to offer free movement for two years under a plan drawn up by Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Meanwhile The Guardian quoted “a senior cabinet source” as saying that the period may last three or four years.
It is thought Mr Hammond believes he has won backing within the cabinet for a transition to prevent disruption to business caused by a sudden “cliff-edge” move to new arrangements on March 29, 2019, when Brexit is officially due to happen.
“I know not just from agriculture but from other industries how important it is we ensure we have access to the high quality labour on which the success of our economy depends,” said Mr Gove.
“And, as the Prime Minister has made clear, as we leave the European Union we will have an implementation period which will ensure we continue to have not just access to labour, but the economic stability and certainty business requests, and that is something around which the government and the cabinet are united.”
Some pro-Brexit Tory MPs expressed concerns about the possibility of free movement continuing past March 2019.
Peter Bone told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “There’s a complete difference between minor technical things that need to go on, and major things like free movement.
“Free movement has to end no later than March 31 2019, and I think most Conservative MPs would say that, the country would say that and, absolutely the most important thing, I think Mrs May would say that.”
Fellow Leave-backingTory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said Britain would have to overcome its skills gap before cutting immigration.
She said: “Nobody wants to see a system where, if you can’t find agricultural workers to pick your strawberries, you allow that business to fail.”