Britain’s EU divorce bill is now presumed to be “£60bn and falling”, the Brexit Secretary told business leaders on Friday as he offered reassurance about the UK’s future economic relationship with Europe.
Sky News has learnt that David Davis told a gathering of bosses at Chevening House that the UK would enjoy a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the European Union after Brexit.
He is said to have told executives including Xavier Rolet of the London Stock Exchange Group, Steve Varley, who runs accountancy firm EY, and Vittorio Colao of Vodafone that negotiations with Europe had been “scratchy” but that they should not be concerned.
Mr Davis’s remarks about the divorce bill, confirmed by three people who attended Friday’s meeting, are likely to attract the greatest scrutiny.
Three sources said he had told the gathering that the EU negotiating team led by Michel Barnier had been assumed to be seeking £100bn but that this had come down to “£60bn and falling”.
The Brexit Secretary made the comment less than a fortnight after describing as “nonsense” a report in The Sunday Times that the Government would offer to pay up to £50bn to the EU in order to kick off trade talks as soon as next month.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: “The Secretary of State was clearly making a reference to unsourced figures which have long been in the public domain and which we do not accept. It would be entirely wrong to take his words out of that context.
“We have been clear that we recognise we have obligations to the EU and that the EU has obligations to the UK.
“Those issues are currently being worked through as part of the ongoing negotiations.”
Friday’s summit was also attended by Lord Hill, the former EU financial services commissioner; Ivan Menezes, Diageo chief executive; Sir Howard Davies, chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland; Alison Brittain, Whitbread chief executive; John Pettigrew, the boss of National Grid; and Rob Rooney, who runs Morgan Stanley International.
Sources said the business leaders urged ministers to fast-track a position paper on services, which account for a much bigger proportion of the UK economy than goods and are expected to be a more complex issue to resolve with the EU.
Some of those present described a “positive” mood and said they had been reassured by a broad agreement of the need for a period of acclimatisation possibly lasting as long as four years after March 2019.
Mr Davis told business leaders that there had been more progress on the issue of immigration than was widely believed and emphasised that the Government had no desire to handicap business.
He added that there was a high probability of a transition period being similar to today’s trading arrangements.
“He made it clear that it would be exactly like membership for a couple of years if the Government gets its way,” according to one source.
Some of those in attendance raised concerns, however, about the impact on smaller employers – with the absence from Chevening of groups such as the Federation of Small Businesses highlighted by a number of executives.
The Chevening talks reflect a desire on the part of ministers to be seen as adopting a more pro-business approach following months of criticism about the muted relationship between the Government and private sector bosses.
A new business liaison group established by Mr Davis, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Chancellor Philip Hammond met earlier this week.
However, relations suffered a setback earlier this month when many bosses reacted angrily to a request from Downing Street to sign a letter backing Mrs May’s handling of the Brexit talks.