In an urgent plea to Tory leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, EU Exit Secretary Stephen Barclay warned that the chances of the country quitting the bloc without a deal are far higher than expected by businesses.
He called on the contenders for Downing Street to be ready to “seize the opportunities” of a no deal Brexit this autumn to build new trade links with emerging markets around the world.
And taking a swipe at Chancellor Philip Hammond, the Brexiteer Cabinet dismissed Treasury forecasts that quitting the EU without a deal could cost the economy £90billion were neither “accurate” nor “neutral”.
Mr Barclay delivered his call to arms in an exclusive interview with the Daily Express in his office at the Department for Exiting the EU at Number Nine Downing Street.
Asked about the odds of the country leaving the EU without a deal, he said: “A no deal Brexit is under-priced. The risk of a no deal is higher than many particularly in the business community realise and that is why it is important that we prepare.”
He added: “We will be ready. We’re working hard in Government to ensure we are ready. A new prime minister will turbo-charge those plans and I look forward to supporting them.
“We have a short period of time between now and October 31 and this department is working at pace to get those plans ready.”
Officials across Whitehall were working on more than 300 no deal planning projects, he said.
Mr Barclay spoke to the Daily Express on Wednesday as Conservative Campaign HQ prepared to send party leadership contest ballot papers to the party’s 160,000 grassroots members.
With the first voting slips arriving yesterday, tens of thousands of members are expected to make their choice between Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt this weekend.
Stephen Barclay warned that the chances of the country quitting the bloc without a deal are high
Boris Johnson is committed to leave the EU before October 31
The EU Exit Secretary, who is supporting Mr Johnson to be the country’s next prime minister, backed the front runner’s plan for the UK to quit the EU on October 31 with or without a deal while insisting urgent preparations needed to be made.
“I’ve been candid with colleagues that I think a no deal Brexit is disruptive but at the same time there will be opportunities and it is important that we stand ready to seize those should that be the way we depart. But the key is we deliver on the referendum result,” he said.
Mr Barclay said the incoming prime minister should “use Brexit as an opportunity, not as something that has got to be managed as a problem”.
Leaving the EU could be a “catalyst” for renewing regions of the UK “that felt they have been left behind,” he said.
Many preparations already made for a possible no deal Brexit on March 29 before Theresa May agreed to delaying the departure remained in place, he said.
But businesses needed to take extra precautions for any possible temporary disruption to import supply chains in case a deal cannot be agreed by Halloween. In particular, firms might need to prepare “storage space in the run up to Christmas”.
“It’s important we build on the progress that was done in the run up to March but also we recognise that leaving in October brings different challenges to leaving in March,” the EU Exit Secretary said.
Admitting a no deal Brexit could be “disruptive”, he warned that any “obstacles to the flow of trade” imposed by the European Commission could backfire by having a bigger impact on Ireland than the UK.
“The relative impact of no deal on the Irish economy is higher than it is for the UK, so I don’t think no deal is in either sides’ interests.
“It’s better to come to agreement and leave with a deal. But if there are problems at Dover, they are not just UK problems, they are problems that would affect the Irish government, EU exporters and EU businesses.
“Four fifths of hauliers on UK roads are European. So this is very much a shared issue we need to address.”
Tens of thousands of members are expected to choose the next conservative leader this weekend
Many agreements were already in place to ensure travel and trading arrangements will not change in the immediate aftermath of a no deal Brexit, he said.
Mr Barclay shared the “impatience” of Daily Express readers with the country’s failure to leave the EU on schedule in March.
Business leaders were overwhelmingly concerned with ending the uncertainty hanging over the exit, he said.
“On the key issue of October 31, the message I get from business all the time is that they want an end to the uncertainty and they fear a Corbyn government if we don’t deliver Brexit and deliver on the democratic will of the British people.
“Having already extended, having seen three years pass since the referendum vote, I think there is an impatience among many Express readers – an impatience I share – and I think it is essential that we leave on October 31 and Boris Johnson is committed to doing so,” he said.
Mr Barclay declined to echo Mr Johnson’s recent promise to withdraw the country from the EU “do or die” however.
“It’s always dangerous to use such language!” he said. “The key is that we’re listening to the British people.
“The British people spoke in the biggest referendum vote, there was a very clear mandate to leave. We need to do so in a way that brings the country back together.”
Turning to the Chancellor’s prediction at Treasury Questions on Tuesday that a no-deal Brexit could wipe £90billion off the economy over the next 15 years, the EU Exit Secretary said: “To predict for 2035 the precise landing zone of where the economy is not something that can be done with accuracy. Also, that figure is in isolation of the actions a government would take.
“The Government wouldn’t sit on its hands – it would take a series of decisions in response to the opportunity as we left the EU. It’s not a neutral figure.”
Comparing the forecast to the Treasury’s warnings of mass job losses in the run up to the 2016 EU referendum, the Cabinet minister added: “The idea that one could predict for 2035 with precision and do so in isolation of the decisions that Government takes I don’t think gives you an accurate picture of where we’ll be.
Mr Barclay said the next Prime Minister should use Brexit as an ‘opportunity’, not a ‘problem’
“I share the optimism of the Express readers that this is a major economy with great strengths that has opportunities to go and trade around the world with the growth markets in Africa, in China, in India and elsewhere. I think that optimism is well placed and it’s something the Government will seize on.”
Mr Barclay said Parliament was heading for a “moment of truth” this autumn on allowing Brexit to go through with or without a deal.
“It’s essential that Parliament listens to the people and actually delivers on what was the true people’s vote,” he said.
Hitting out at Remain-backing MPs who have repeatedly frustrated the Brexit process at Westminster, he said: “It’s a shame that three years after the biggest democratic vote in our history that there are a number of people who have still not accepted the result, who seek to unpick it.”
Mr Barclay was unimpressed by this week’s horse-trading by EU leaders in Brussels that led to low-profile German defence minister Ursula Von De Leyen being formally proposed as the successor European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
“It’s interesting that she wasn’t one of the candidates in the debates that took place before the election or in much of the discussion of leaders over the last few months.
“And I think that reinforces why many Express readers voted for Brexit,” he said.
“Whoever is in the top jobs in Europe we will seek a positive and constructive relationship. We think it’s in both sides interests to have a good trading relationship between the EU and UK. We will work in a positive spirit with whoever is in the top jobs.
“The key is that we deliver on the decision of the British people.”