Britain is embarking on the first full round of Brexit negotiations, as the Cabinet remains in all-out war over the Government’s negotiating strategy.
Brexit Secretary David Davis, arriving in Brussels this morning, told waiting media: “Now it’s time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation.”
He said negotiators had made a good start last month but that they would now be working “on the substance of the matter”.
He is in Brussels for four days of talks that will focus on protecting EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in Europe.
But as the talks get under way, it is reported that Chancellor Philip Hammond is being accused of Brexit treachery and trying to frustrate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Brexit hardliners in the Cabinet and on the Tory backbenches are furious with Mr Hammond for championing a two-year transition deal to cushion the impact of leaving the EU.
An unnamed senior Cabinet minister is quoted in The Daily Telegraph saying: “What’s really going on is that the Establishment, the Treasury, is trying to f*** it up.
“They want to frustrate Brexit.
“This is a critical moment. That’s why we have to keep Theresa (May) there. Otherwise the whole thing will fall apart.”
According to the Telegraph’s source, Mr Hammond sees Brexit-supporters as “pirates” who have “taken the Establishment prisoner” and he is “trying to break out” and get his own way.
At the start of the Brussels talks, Mr Davis – whose allies claim 30 Tory MPs are ready to back him if he runs for the leadership – is expected to call for both sides to “get down to business”.
Mr Davis said he will set out citizens’ rights as his personal priority for this week’s talks, with a new push to lift uncertainty for the three million EU citizens living in the UK and one million Britons living in the EU.
“We made a good start last month, and this week we’ll be getting into the real substance,” he said.
“Protecting the rights of all our citizens is the priority for me going into this round and I’m clear that it’s something we must make real progress on.”
Also on the agenda this week are the contentious issues of the financial settlement for the UK leaving the EU and the arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The latest reported attack on Mr Hammond from senior colleagues comes after he reacted angrily to a Sunday Times report claiming he told the Cabinet last Tuesday that public sector workers were overpaid.
“If you want my opinion, some of the noise is generated by people who are not happy with the agenda which I, over the last few weeks, have tried to advance of ensuring that we achieve a Brexit which is focused on protecting our economy, protecting our jobs, and making sure that we have continued rising living standards in the future,” he said in a TV interview.
But in the same interview, the Chancellor – seen as an advocate of a so-called “soft Brexit” – infuriated hardline Tory Brexiteers who want a clean break from the EU by suggesting a transitional period could last two years.
Asked how long that period would be, he said: “It depends how long we need to put in place new customs systems, new migration systems; these things can’t be magicked up overnight.
“We’re not going to be talking a couple of months, we are going to be talking a couple of years.”
That forecast bluntly contradicted a prediction by the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox who said last Thursday he would be “very happy” with a transition period of just “a few months”.