A government minister has added to Conservative divisions over Brexit by describing Britain’s vote to leave as “a terrible mistake” and urging Theresa May to fight hard to stay in the single market.
David Prior, the health minister in the House of Lords, also said that Britain must continue to be able to attract top medical, scientific and academic talent to bolster universities and especially the life sciences industry.
Speaking at the Royal College of Physicians’ annual dinner in London on Thursday evening, Lord Prior of Brampton told an audience of 170 senior doctors: “My personal view is that leaving Europe was a terrible mistake. But given that it was a mistake, we must do everything we can to ensure that we stay in the single market and that we do have access to the best people from around the world. I fully echo what you said.”
He preceded those remarks by reminding the audience that some of them had voiced worries that Brexit may deter doctors and scientists from overseas from coming to work in Cambridge, one of the country’s key centres of biomedical research. Prior then added, to applause: “When you talked at the end about your concerns you had about attracting people from around the world to Cambridge and our great academic institutions, we totally understand.”
The portrayal by Prior, a former chief executive and deputy chairman of the Conservative party, of Brexit as a mistake is much more outspoken than views expressed by most other ministers who backed remain in the referendum.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “Lord Prior’s remarks are starkly at odds with his own government, which is veering towards a reckless and divisive hard Brexit. Theresa May must stop pandering to the views of a minority of hardline Tory Brexiters and start standing up for the national interest. A disastrous exit from the single market would leave us all poorer.”
Prior also angered some doctors at the dinner by calling the medical profession “tribal … fragmented … a bit dated … [and] a bit dysfunctional”, with medical leaders “uncertain and in some respects detached”.
However, he insisted that “I am on your side” and wanted more doctors to become “architects of the NHS” and not just “construction workers” by taking up senior hospital management roles, as many medics do in the US.
Prior was the Tory MP for North Norfolk until 2001. His appointment as chairman of the Care Quality Commission, the NHS regulator in England, sparked concerns about cronyism. He has been a health minister and peer since May 2015.
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