Dominic Raab has insisted he will not “wallow in pessimism” about the Brexit process as Eurosceptics voiced concerns his department was being sidelined by Number 10.
The Brexit Secretary played down the “shifting of the Whitehall deckchairs” which confirmed Prime Minister Theresa May is taking personal control of the talks with the European Union.
And he insisted the UK would not “cower” in talks with Brussels following concerns that a “no-deal” Brexit was becoming more likely.
Officials working on the negotiations will be brought together in the Cabinet Office Europe Unit headed by Mr Robbins – who reports direct to the Prime Minister – while Mr Raab’s Department for Exiting the EU will focus on preparations for life after Brexit.
As Mr Raab and Mr Robbins appeared in front of the Exiting the EU Select Committee, Eurosceptic Tory Craig Mackinlay suggested there had been a civil service “coup d’etat”, while fellow Brexiteer Peter Bone suggested Mr Robbins had been responsible for a “secret” plan which led to the Chequers proposals.
Mr Robbins denied both suggestions, telling Mr Mackinlay “I honestly don’t recognise the picture you are painting” and insisting to Mr Bone “there was never a second secret white paper”.
Mr Raab insisted the new arrangements were aimed at ensuring a coherent approach.
Sitting alongside Mr Robbins he said: “We have been very clear about this – there’s no tension between us, I think that’s clear – that all the advice and all of the meetings will be attended by me, with the Prime Minister, and that all the advice will come to me.”
Challenged about the prospect of a “no-deal” outcome, Mr Raab said that while there would be “uncertainty” in the short-term “I think long-term actually we would still be able to thrive”.
But he insisted he was working for a deal, telling MPs: “What I’m not going to do is wallow in pessimism about the state of this country in relation to Brexit and we are going to go into these negotiations with economic confidence and political ambition.
“I am going to bring to (Michel) Barnier and to the whole enterprise as much energy as I can.
“What I am not going to do is allow us to cower in the corner, afraid of our own shadow, about the potential that that energy and that ambition and that principle and that pragmatism isn’t reciprocated on the other side.
“I think we will be braced for all the eventualities.”
Part of the Government’s planning involves securing supplies of food and medicines.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs he had asked officials to “work up options for stockpiling” by the pharmaceutical industry while Mr Raab said the Government would also take steps to ensure an “adequate food supply”.
Mr Raab acknowledged that the Chequers plan struck a balance between the UK’s ability to diverge from the EU and the need to protect trade and address the Irish border issue.
But he said the plan was a “road map” to the “sunlit uplands” of a final deal which respects the referendum result.
Unveiling the plans in a white paper in the House of Commons, Mr Raab described it as “another key milestone in the UK’s path to leaving the EU”.
And he repeated his warning that the UK could withhold payment of its £39 billion “divorce bill” if the EU fails to reach agreement on its future trade relationship with the UK.
“There must be a firm commitment in the withdrawal agreement requiring the framework for the future relationship to be translated into legal text as soon as possible,” Mr Raab told MPs.
“It is one part of the whole deal we are doing with our EU partners.
“And of course if one party fails to honour its side of that overall bargain, there will be consequences for the deal as a whole – and that includes the financial settlement.”
Initially announced last November, the Bill will create a new financial authority to manage payments to the EU over the years after Brexit.
Mr Raab repeated the Government’s intention to finalise the withdrawal agreement, as well as a political declaration on future UK-EU relations, in October. This would allow for the new Bill to pass through Parliament in late 2018 and early 2019.
It covers issues including the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in the remaining 27 member states, the financial settlement and the details of a transition period expected to end in December 2020. Precise details will not be known until the withdrawal agreement is concluded.