Downing Street insisted on Monday that it remained committed to the tough Brexit negotiating stance that Theresa May set out earlier this year — including ending the free movement of EU citizens in the UK — after days of contradictory statements from ministers.

The prime minister’s spokesman said that free movement of EU citizens to and from the UK would end in March 2019, when the UK leaves the bloc. “Elements of the post-Brexit immigration system will be brought forward in due course,” the spokesman added. “It would be wrong to speculate on what these will look like or to suggest that free movement will continue.”

Last week, Amber Rudd, home secretary, indicated there would probably be a relatively liberal post-Brexit migration regime. But Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, told the Sunday Times over the weekend that “unregulated free movement” of people between the UK and EU after Brexit would not keep faith with the electorate’s decision in last year’s EU referendum.

The prime minister’s spokesman said on Monday, however, that the government’s approach to Brexit talks had not changed in either direction. “The position of the government is as set out by the prime minister in Lancaster House,” the spokesman said, referring to a speech in January when Mrs May outlined her approach to Brexit negotiations. In that speech, Mrs May said the UK would seek an agreement on various issues in Brexit negotiations, but held out the possibility that Britain might leave the EU without reaching a conclusive deal.

The spokesman’s comments came after Philip Hammond, chancellor, backed away from suggestions that the UK would be a deregulated, low-cost competitor to the EU after Brexit, telling a French newspaper that Britain planned to remain “recognisably European” after it left the EU. The chancellor told Le Monde that the UK would not play the “fiscal card” to maintain the country’s competitiveness once it left the EU in March 2019.

Mr Hammond had previously told Germany’s Welt Am Sonntag newspaper that if the UK failed to secure a deal in the Brexit negotiations, the country might change its economic model and start to compete on the basis of its regulatory and tax regime with the European bloc. “I often hear it said that the UK is considering participating in unfair competition in regulation and tax,” he told Le Monde, but added that was neither the UK’s current plan nor its vision for the future. “The level of taxes that we take compared with GDP sits at around the European average level and I think we will remain at this level,” he told the newspaper. “I would expect us to remain a country with a social, economic and cultural model that is recognisably European.”

Mr Hammond has also been a leading advocate of transitional arrangements to avoid a “cliff edge” in regulation for businesses. He told the BBC on Friday that such a deal might mean very little changed immediately once the UK left the EU, and a transitional arrangement might last until the next UK general election in 2022.

However, Mr Fox, one of the cabinet’s most vocal supporters of Brexit, said over the weekend that while he was happy to discuss arrangements for a transitional period on free movement, he had “not been party” to any discussions on the issue. “If there have been discussions on that, I have not been party to them,” he told the Sunday Times. “I have not been involved in any discussion on that, nor have I signified my agreement to anything like that.”

Downing Street’s efforts to downplay the divisions on Monday came hours after Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, told the BBC that the cabinet was “united on two things” with regards to Brexit: ensuring Britain had control over “laws, border and money”, and making sure that the country was “more global, and not more insular” as a result.

But Peter Dowd, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said Mr Hammond’s latest comments showed the government has “broken down into farce”. “The chancellor is not only disagreeing with cabinet colleagues over Brexit, he is now in open dispute with himself given it is only his own comments on the matter in January which he is pretending to contradict,” Mr Dowd said.

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