The health secretary said hospitals would still be able to recruit from EU nations after Brexit before a new immigration policy was finalised, throwing himself behind the gradualist approach to departure led by Philip Hammond.
The chancellor is among ministers – who also include Amber Rudd, Damian Green and David Gauke – likely to push Theresa May to accept that while free movement will officially end, there should be no immediate move to reduce immigration.
However, this approach could bring clashes with the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
Fox said in an interview on Sunday that there was no cabinet-wide agreement on what a post-Brexit implementation period should look like, and warned that “control of our own borders” was a key driver of the leave vote.
But speaking to BBC1’s Breakfast programme, Hunt insisted ministers were united behind a plan which would avoid a “cliff edge” departure and thus, for his department, help maintain NHS staff numbers.
Asked how the health service could ensure a supply of EU workers after Britain left the EU, Hunt said: “The cabinet is absolutely united on two things.
“Firstly, we are going to deliver Brexit, because that’s what Britain voted for, and we will leave the European Union in March 2019. And that means leaving with a deal that gives us control of our laws, our borders and our money, which is what people voted for.
“But secondly, we are clear that we want Brexit to make Britain more global, and not more isolationist. That means a business-friendly Brexit that works for the NHS. It means that hospitals will still, after Brexit, be able to recruit people from overseas in the European Union as they do now.”
The aim was “to avoid a cliff edge as we move to a new immigration policy”, Hunt said, arguing this would need a gradual implementation process.
“That will take a period of time to do that,” he said. “But we recognise that hospitals recruiting from the EU is a very, very important part of what they do and we want to have a gradual transition into a new immigration policy that is voted on and decided on by the British people through parliament, which we can’t do at the moment through the EU.
“But it needs an implementation process, a period of time in which we move towards that new approach.”
Speaking later to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hunt conceded there were some ministerial differences: “Brexit excites huge passions, they’re on different sides, these passions, and people’s supporters say things in the media. But around the cabinet table there is unity.”
The common aim, he said, was “a Brexit that works for business, that works for the NHS, the NHS needs to recruit doctors and nurses from all over Europe, and that is going to continue after we leave the European Union”.
Hunt said a transitional arrangement could last for up to three years following departure from the EU in 2019. Such a deal, he said, “must be complete by the time of the next election at the latest – it could happen earlier than then”.
Hunt added: “But we want to make sure that businesses, NHS hospitals, everyone, can carry on recruiting the people they need.”
Several ministers have used May’s absence on holiday to set out their vision of a transitional period following Brexit, but this has prompted some senior Conservative MPs to urge members of the cabinet to be more circumspect, in case they make negotiations with the EU more difficult.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader and key Brexit supporter, said: “Conservative backbenchers now wish cabinet members would practise what some are preaching and that they ‘transition’ from saying too much about Europe to saying nothing at all. This is a transition that should last up to two years.”
The question of a transitional deal has been forced up the agenda since May lost her majority in June’s election, emboldening the proponents of soft Brexit in her cabinet.
The ministers will hammer out what would be acceptable to voters this autumn when May chairs a number of sessions of her cabinet sub-committee on leaving the EU.
While the prime minister is on holiday, the chancellor has made a series of interventions, including claiming that the UK’s relationship could look “similar in many ways” for some time after formally leaving the bloc in 2019. He has been supported by Rudd, who ordered an analysis of EU migration, but also made clear that EU citizens would be free to continue coming to the UK during the transition period, as long as they registered.
This article was written by Peter Walker and Anushka Asthana, for theguardian.com on Monday 31st July 2017 08.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010