International trade minister Liam Fox has guaranteed that the UK will have deals in place with all its current trading partners by the point of Brexit.
Fox made the claim as part of the government's efforts to have its Trade Bill pushed through parliament. The bill is one of nine new pieces of legislation that will pave the foundations of life after Brexit.
Critically, it allows ministers to scope out future trade deals ahead of March 2019, when the UK is not allowed to negotiate or sign anything formally.
Fox told the Commons the bill was "Not about new trade agreements…. This bill is about continuity of existing agreements and in any case the 2010 act gives the Commons power to block ratification."
In response to a question from Remain MP Chuka Umunna, Fox confirmed that the government was aiming to have "as many as possible" of the existing agreements "ready to transpose when we leave".
Fox said that pledge related to "around 40" agreements, for which there were working parties dedicated to ensuring continuity from day one.
Fox has previously claimed that securing a trade deal with the EU after Brexit would be the "easiest in human history", while Brexit secretary David Davis has claimed it would be possible to have a deal in place as the UK leaves. In the summer of 2016, he even implied the UK could break EU rules in order to get a deal done in time.“They can’t tell us who to talk to. What are they are going to do?” he said at the time.
Since then, the rhetoric has dialled down – in fact Fox reminded Chuka of this key issue this afternoon. But the government is increasingly under pressure to demonstrate that it has a handle on the situation with opposition MPs pressing ministers for any evidence that deals were looking likely.
But Labour MPs were quick to point out that the only way to secure an instant trade deal would be to replicate existing deals.
David Lammy tweeted: "We can't sign trade deals whilst we are members of the customs union so I'm not exactly sure how this is going to work. Unless he just copies and pastes the exact same trade deals and signs them a few seconds after midnight. In which case, what is the point of leaving?"