Theresa May still aims to broker a trade deal with the European Union before Britain leaves in 2019, even as members of her own cabinet express doubts over the likelihood of doing so.
The timetable remains as the prime minister set out in her Lancaster House speech, her spokesman, James Slack, said on Thursday.
Slack was referring to the January address in which May, laying out her vision for Brexit, set a goal of reaching an agreement within the two-year Brexit timetable. That target clashes with a growing consensus among senior Tory ministers, who have signaled skepticism that a comprehensive trade deal can be brokered before the scheduled departure date of March 2019.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, one of the cabinet’s most fervent advocates of Brexit, said last month that while “it would be nice to think we could get a full trade agreement” before the exit date, “that would be an optimistic view of recent free-trade agreements.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has laid out a vision for a three-year bridging period that would allow “life as normal” for people and businesses the day after Brexit. May herself has said there will have to be transitional arrangements to ensure it’s a smooth process.
As the U.K. gears up for another round of negotiations at the end of August, the clock is ticking down to the exit. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said the discussions can’t address the new trading relationship until progress has been made on three key issues: the rights of EU and British citizens, the U.K. border with Ireland, and Britain’s exit payment. He said after the last round of talks that it was unlikely enough progress would be made by October to allow negotiations to move on to trade.