Britain's chief Brexit minister warned the European Union — and his divided party — on Monday that the country will leave the bloc without a deal rather than accept continued close adherence to its rules and obligations.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told Conservative members at the party's annual conference that if the EU tries to "lock us in via the back door" by keeping Britain in the bloc's single market or customs union, "then we will be left with no choice but to leave without a deal."
Ten days after EU leaders told Prime Minister Theresa May that her proposed divorce terms were unacceptable, Raab accused the bloc of casting "jibes" at Britain and having a "theological approach allows no room for serious compromise."
He said that if the bloc wants a deal, "they need to get serious. And they need to do it now."
Raab's combative stance toward the bloc is not universally shared among Conservatives as Britain's governing party holds its four-day gathering in the central England city of Birmingham.
Many Conservative lawmakers would rather keep close ties with the EU after Britain leaves in March. So would major business groups, who fear barriers to trade and recruiting workers could hammer the U.K. economy.
Treasury chief Philip Hammond will use his own conference speech Monday to stress that the Conservatives are the party of business and economic aspiration. It's a sign of how Brexit has upended British politics that the party of free-market former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher needs to make such an assurance.
May, meanwhile, faces the mounting threat of a challenge to her leadership amid deepening opposition to her Brexit plan, which would keep Britain in the EU single market for goods while leaving it free to make its own rules on services.
Advocates of "hard Brexit" argue that make the U.K. a "vassal" of the EU. They say a clean break with the bloc would let Britain strike new trade deals around the world. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a likely future contender for May's job, has called the prime minister's plan "preposterous" and "deranged."
On May's other flank are ministers such as Hammond, who want to retain close economic bonds with the EU after departure. Hammond on Monday called Johnson's claims about Brexit "fantasy land" and said government required more than "flamboyant statements and big announcements."
May's plan has also been rejected by EU leaders, who say it amounts to "cherry picking" benefits of membership in the bloc without the costs and responsibilities.
May is sticking to her proposal. But with Brexit day — March 29— less than six months away, chances are rising that the U.K. could find itself crashing out of the bloc without a deal. The government has acknowledged that could leave lanes grounded and trucks backed up at British ports.
Raab warned that any chaos following a "no deal" Brexit would be the bloc's fault.
"Even if we can't secure a comprehensive deal with the EU, I find it hard to believe that they would, for narrow political ends, seek to punish Britain in such a crass and counterproductive way," Raab said.
He said such a move would threaten "European as well as U.K. businesses and jobs."
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