Fox Casts Doubt on the Brexit Transition as May Vows to Fight

(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s international trade secretary cast doubt on whether the U.K. will agree to a transition phase to help smooth the Brexit process for businesses.

Speaking in China, Liam Fox told Sky News that free trade deals with countries outside the European Union would still be some time away “if” there is a transitional phase in which Britain can’t negotiate with third countries.

Fox Casts Doubt on the Brexit Transition as May Vows to Fight

While the official U.K. government position is to seek a transition period of about two years after the country leaves the EU in March 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach has shifted in recent weeks amid pressure from hardline Brexit backers. 

Negotiations with the EU over the grace period were expected to be relatively smooth, but May vowed on Wednesday to fight Brussels over the terms of the deal. Transition is the number one priority for businesses that will need to adjust to new trading rules after Brexit.

“As everybody knows, we can’t negotiate, never mind sign any agreements while we’re still in the EU, and that’s likely to be extended if we were to have an implementation period, which business seems to want us to give them in terms of stability,” Fox said.

Fox’s comments come amid an intense debate within the U.K.’s governing Conservative party about Brexit policy. Hardline Brexit supporters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg want the prime minister to pull Britain out of the EU without the transition period she is seeking.

Backing May

Talks are getting started on the terms of the transition deal, between British and European Union officials, and are due to finish next month. Brexit Secretary David Davis, who initially said last week he was "relaxed" about the terms of transition as the final deal is a greater priority, later changed his tone amid pressure from euroskeptics, and said he would push back against some of the EU’s conditions.

In a round of broadcast interviews, Fox said Prime Minister Theresa May is showing leadership, commitment and vision on her trade mission to China and her critics back in the U.K. should see her the way she’s seen in other countries.

Fox criticized his colleagues in the Conservative Party who are growing frustrated with May’s leadership, amid reports that some plan to oust her as premier.

Speaking to British television crews in Beijing, Fox insisted that May is doing “an excellent job” as he appealed to his colleagues to look at her in a different way instead of complaining about her in Parliament’s private tea rooms.

Earlier this week, May insisted she wouldn’t quit but accepted that she needed to communicate the government’s successes better.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.