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May to spell out vision for future relationship with EU

File photo dated 21/02/18 of Prime Minister Theresa May, who facing the threat of a Commons rebellion on staying in the customs union after a marathon gathering of senior Cabinet members met to find a united front on EU withdrawal. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday February 23, 2018. The eight-hour meeting of the Brexit "war cabinet" at Chequers was called to plot a way forward after Tory tensions went public, but the Prime Minister was threatened with a fresh challenge to her authority from pro-Europe Conservative backbenchers. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Theresa May is to deliver a long-awaited speech setting out her vision for Britain's future relationship with the European Union on Friday March 2, Downing Street has announced.

The Prime Minister cleared the way for the speech by securing agreement from senior ministers at a Brexit "war cabinet" at Chequers on Thursday on key features of the future relationship.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - who was not at the meeting - said the Government will pursue a policy putting Britain outside a customs union with the European Union but matching Brussels rules in certain sectors in an attempt to achieve "frictionless" trade.

The policy puts Mrs May on a collision course with Tory Brexit rebels who are backing an amendment to the Trade Bill which would mandate the UK to form a customs union with Brussels on leaving the EU.

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is widely predicted to give his blessing to a customs union arrangement with the EU in his own speech on Monday, in which he is expected to give greater clarity on his party's Brexit policy.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour now backs a customs union which would look "pretty much like" the current one after withdrawal.

Unlike previous keynote Brexit addresses in Florence and Munich, the Prime Minister's speech is expected to take place in the UK, though Downing Street refused to discuss the venue.

Mrs May is expected to speak to the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen, which takes place on March 2-3, but it is not known whether she intends to use this as the venue for her Brexit speech.

Her official spokesman characterised the eight-hour Chequers meeting as "very positive ... and a step forward, agreeing the basis of the Prime Minister's speech on our future relationship".

The meeting's conclusions will be discussed at by the full Cabinet ahead of Mrs May's speech - probably at its regular Downing Street meeting on Tuesday.

Mr Hunt said the Brexit sub-committee agreed that Britain must not be part of a customs union as it should have the right to strike free trade deals with other countries, and claimed "frictionless" trade was still possible without one.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Customs union is one way of getting frictionless trade but it's not the only way, and what we're saying is we want to achieve frictionless trade by agreement between two sovereign bodies - the United Kingdom and European Union."

He added: "You have divergent views on a big issue like Brexit, as you would expect, but the central common understanding is that there will be areas and sectors of industry where we agree to align our regulations with European regulations. The automotive industry is perhaps an obvious example because of supply chains that are integrated.

"But it will be on a voluntary basis, we will as a sovereign power have the right to choose to diverge, and what we won't be doing is accepting changes in rules because the EU unilaterally chooses to make those changes."

Tory Brexit rebel Anna Soubry, who has tabled the customs union amendment, said she has cross-party support and called on Labour to back it, tweeting: "It would be in the national interest if the Government & official Opposition also backed it."

Downing Street dismissed reports that the PM was preparing for a U-turn on the rights of EU migrants who arrive in the UK during any transition period following the date of Brexit in March 2019.

Her official spokesman said there was no change in Mrs May's position that the rights of EU nationals arriving after the date of Brexit in March 2019 would be different from those coming to the UK before.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of backbench Tory Eurosceptics, said it would be "unconscionable" for Mrs May to cave in to Brussels demands for permanent settlement rights for anyone arriving before the end of the transition period - probably 2021.

Mr Rees-Mogg told Today: "I'd be astonished if Mrs May would make U-turn of that kind; she is a lady of great backbone and for her to kowtow to the European Union is I think unconscionable."

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