No decision on the Irish border after Brexit will be made before talks move on to trade, Liam Fox has announced.
The International Trade Secretary put himself directly at odds with the Irish Government and raised fresh fears about negotiations moving on to phase two by December.
Speaking on a visit to New Zealand, he told Sky’s Sunday with Niall Paterson: “The UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market.
“We’ve always had exceptions for Ireland – whether it’s in voting rights or residence rights in the UK – we’ve always accepted a certain asymmetry.
“That will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the EU.
“But we can’t get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state – and until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult.
“So the quicker we can do that the better.
He added: “We’re still in the position where the EU doesn’t want to do that and we’re getting quite close now to 2018, when we’ll be talking about ‘next year’ when we leave the EU.
“So for all the reasons – international as well as European – I think we have to get there faster than we’re doing at the present time.”
The comments risk further splits with Ireland, after the Republic’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned he would block Brexit negotiations moving on to trade unless a formal guarantee of no hard border was received.
Sky’s Europe Correspondent Mark Stone said: “If he sticks by this, and the EU doesn’t move either then it is certain that ‘sufficient progress’ on divorce won’t be given in December. So trade talks won’t begin – disaster for business and citizens.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said he was “worried” about the comments.
He told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I think the one thing that we don’t want to do is jeopardise any movement quickly, because we need movement to enable us to get into the proper trade negotiations.
“So I’m hoping that isn’t a Downing Street sanctioned statement that’s he’s made.”
It came after Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable told Sky News there was a 20% chance Brexit “won’t happen”.
He said: “There is a distinct possibility Brexit won’t happen. I would currently put the chances at about 20%, but that is likely to become greater.”