Jeremy Hunt has warned Boris Johnson his public criticism could undermine the UK’s Brexit negotiating position.
The health secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today he thought “it’s important that we have these debates in private”.
The UK government is currently deciding which form of future trade relations it wants with the EU before the detailed negotiations take place in Brussels.
The foreign secretary called one of the two options – a customs partnership – “crazy”, in a newspaper interview.
Mr Hunt told Today: “I do think that it is important that we have these debates in private. Not just because of collective responsibility, which is what democracy depends on, but also because this is a negotiation. On the EU side, if they see divisions in the open, they will exploit that.
“I actually think he has a very important role to play in the Government and he is the architect of the whole Brexit campaign and we are listening to what he says and we are doing what he wants.
“But I think we have to recognise that we are not the only people who read the papers in Britain – they are read across the world – and we need to give Theresa May some space.
“If we are going to have these lively debates, we should have them in private because that will strengthen Theresa May’s negotiating hand.”
Asked if his message would be “Boris belt up”, Mr Hunt replied: “You could say that – I would say he’s a marvellous foreign secretary but let’s work as a team.”
What are the government’s options?
- A ‘highly streamlined’ customs arrangement – This would minimise customs checks rather than getting rid of them altogether, using new technologies and things like trusted trader schemes, which could allow companies to pay duties in bulk every few months rather than every time their goods crossed a border
- A customs partnership – This would remove the need for new customs checks at the border. The UK would collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods coming into the UK. If those goods didn’t leave the UK and UK tariffs on them were lower, companies could then claim back the difference.
Meanwhile, as debate continues over which type of trade deal the UK wants with the EU post-Brexit, Theresa May is holding three meetings with large groups of Conservative MPs in Downing Street.
Assistant political editor Norman Smith described it as a “factual” presentation of the customs option rather than making the case for one particular option.
The UK is committed to leaving the current customs union when it exits the EU on 29 March 2019 and ministers are under pressure to agree soon on a successor arrangement amid divisions in cabinet.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Mrs May promised a solution which ensured frictionless trade, enabled the UK to strike trade deals around the world and which did not result in a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“You can trust me to deliver,” she wrote. “I will not let you down”.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, one of the leading Brexiteers in the cabinet, told the Andrew Marr Show that he trusted the PM to reach an agreement but he expressed doubts about what is believed to be her preferred option.
The leading Leave campaigner is one of a group of cabinet ministers asked by the PM to stress-test the customs partnership model – which would see the UK collect tariffs set by the EU on goods coming into the UK.
“Because it is novel, because no model like this exists, there have to be significant question marks over the deliverability of it on time,” he said.
“More than that, what it requires the British government to do is, in effect, act as the tax collector… for the European Union… It is my view that the new customs partnership has flaws and that they need to be tested.”