Britain will be ready if the Brexit talks fail, as a lack of preparation would be a dereliction of duty, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has said.
Speaking to the Conservative party conference, the senior cabinet minister said there was “cause for optimism” that a deal would be achieved but the government would be braced for the possibility of failure.
“If the outcome of the negotiation falls short of the deal that Britain needs, we will be ready for the alternative,” he said.
“So there is a determined exercise under way in Whitehall devoted to contingency arrangements so that we are ready for any outcome.”
He cautioned against believing “lurid accounts of the negotiations with the predictions of breakdown and crisis” but acknowledged some of the exchanges have been tough. He also warned that while the prizes for the success of a good Brexit deal would be “enormous”, so could be the consequences of failure.
Davis said people knew it would not be “easy or straightforward” but he was driven by the “one-off, time-limited, extraordinary opportunity” to leave the EU that motivated millions of leave voters last year.
He struck a more pragmatic tone in his speech to Conservative members than the two other senior Brexiter cabinet ministers – Liam Fox and Boris Johnson – who focused their speeches on urging people to be more positive about Brexit.
Johnson, the foreign secretary, hit out at the media for highlighting warnings about the possible consequences of Brexit, singling out the Financial Times for being particularly gloomy.
“It is time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle or an inexplicable aberration by 17.4 million people,” he said.
“It is time to be bold, and to seize the opportunities, and there is no country better placed than Britain.”
Hailing the “opportunities” of Brexit, he said it was “up to us now – in the traditional non-threatening, genial and self-deprecating way of the British – to let that lion roar”.
In an attack on Jeremy Corbyn, the foreign secretary mentioned a space programme that falls under the brief of his brother, the Tory science minister, Jo Johnson. “I have a candidate for the first man we gently blast into orbit and that is the superannuated space cadet from Islington,” he said.
Later at a fringe event, the foreign secretary claimed there would be “lots of trade deals” signed with non-EU countries by the time of the next election and made the case for a high degree of regulatory divergence from Brussels after Brexit.
His tone was echoed by Fox, the trade secretary, who urged the audience: “Let’s be upbeat, Let’s be positive. Let’s be optimistic.
“We need to stop the negative, undermining, self-defeating pessimism that is too prevalent in certain quarters and be bold, be brave and rise to the global challenges, together.”
However, not all ministers appeared to heed their plea for pure enthusiasm about Brexit. At another fringe event on Tuesday, Margot James, the minister for small business, warned that trade deals with Commonwealth countries would not be as they had been portrayed in some quarters.
“I think there is a little bit of an over-optimistic attitude about the extent of trade we can summon up with the Commonwealth countries,” she said.
“There are 51 of them and at the moment we export more to Germany than we do to the entire Commonwealth, so there’s a lot of work to be done. We export seven times as much to Germany as we do to India.”
Business groups appeared to have been hoping for more details from the cabinet ministers on their plans for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Josh Hardie, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said: “The need to agree transition and move to discussions on the final deal is critical. There is no time to waste: the impact on investment and jobs across the UK and Europe grows day by day.
“Both sides must show leadership and determination to make sufficient progress on the issues of citizens’ rights, the exit bill and Northern Ireland to move the process on.”
Labour’s Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, also called for more detail from the government on what it intends.
“David Davis’s damp squib of a speech has offered nothing new on how the government intends to break the impasse in Brexit negotiations and deliver a new progressive partnership with the EU,” he said.
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