Committee For Exiting The European Union Grills David Davis

David Davis appeared before the Committee for Exiting the European Union and I grilled him on the nature of the Parliamentary motion on regarding the Withdrawal Agreement, the nature of the political declaration and asks if we are heading towards a constitutional crisis.

Stephen Kinnock: Good morning, Secretary of State. During the course of this session this morning, you have made two very important statements. You have said, on the one hand, that the motion that will be brought before us in the autumn will be amendable but, on the other hand, you have said that if the House rejects the motion, the motion falls. Both of those statements cannot be true, can they? If it is amendable then by definition—

Mr Davis: If it votes it down, it falls. If it amends it, it is amended. What is the problem? They are different outcomes.

Stephen Kinnock: Just to be clear then, if the House amends the motion and instructs the Government to, for example, go back to Brussels and negotiate a different deal to the one that was put before us, the Government would respect the will of the House and would go back to Brussels to do that?

Mr Davis: I am not going to speculate on amendments that have not even yet been laid, let alone passed by the House.

Stephen Kinnock: Secretary of State, you have said that a few times this morning. Surely you must appreciate the risk of us heading towards a constitutional crisis here. Surely it is the responsibility of the Government to have scenarios in mind so that it is ready to respond when the House does vote?

Mr Davis: The first responsibility of the Government is to promote and defend the national interest, which means not putting yourself in positions where you create options that are advantageous to the other side in the negotiation, for example. That is one of the reasons I have in the past argued in this Committee against a referendum, because that would create an incentive on the other side to give us a bad deal, so that they might get a referendum that keeps us in. Similarly, I am not going to give advice on how to create circumstances that might undermine the Government’s negotiating position, as that might do. I do not know what you have in mind, but it might. 

Stephen Kinnock: All I have in mind is that if a meaningful amendment is to be on the table and the Government are to respect that amendment, which by definition is what makes it meaningful, a very meaningful amendment would be, “We want to have a deal with the European Union but we do not think the deal that the Government have brought back from Brussels is satisfactory and we therefore instruct the Government to go back and get another deal”. Are you confirming to us today that the Government would do that if so instructed by the House?

Mr Davis: I am saying to you, in terms of the reasons I have just outlined, that I am not going to speculate on what the Government will do in response to an amendment that has not yet been laid, let alone passed by the House. As a practical matter, I am not entirely sure how much force a Government sent back with its tail between its legs by Parliament would have in such a negotiation, but that is a different matter. What you are making is a constitutional point. You can draw your own conclusions on it. I am not going to speculate on it.

Stephen Kinnock: Turning to the political declaration on the future relationship—the post-transition relationship—I think most people would accept that in many ways that would be the most important aspect of what we vote on in the autumn. Can you say a bit more about how much detail you think will be in that political declaration, given it is such an important vote for us? What do you think would be a satisfactory level of detail and information for MPs to make an informed choice?

Mr Davis: Quite a lot, to be honest. The Chairman referred earlier to reports of me saying that we are talking about 40-plus parallel strands. One of the reasons is that I want us to know ourselves—not just to be able to face Parliament—what the substantive conclusion is in all those different areas. I have just talked about the substantive issue of a free trade agreement and mutual recognition, which would be almost central to the whole thing. There will be a whole series of other areas where we will have issues that may not be central but are massively important: aviation, data, nuclear materials and how we handle that. Some of this is being handled in the House as well in other legislation going through the House. The nuclear materials one has already been through the Commons stages.

We intend that there will be a large amount of substantive material on this—basically decisions. I avoided the phrase, “political declarations”, because it sounds rather woolly; it will be a statement by the Council on a whole series of decisions as to what the future economic partnership will look like. I highlighted earlier my comments to the Chairman that Angela Merkel has said herself that she wants to see a lot of detail around that too, because they will have to present the withdrawal agreement to their own parliaments as well. Nobody wants a pig in a poke. Nobody wants any more uncertainty than is absolutely necessary. The difficulty we have is that it will not be ratified until after we leave. That is where the area of doubt comes, not in the amount that we will achieve by October.

Stephen Kinnock: Is the weakness in your logic not that there is an umbilical cord going from the Northern Ireland issue to the political declaration? The future relationship post-transition is, to a large extent, going to be determined by what can be agreed around Northern Ireland. Until the Northern Ireland issue has been resolved, meaningful discussions on the political declaration cannot really start and, in that case, is it likely that we are going to have that level of detail by October? Are you not fundamentally being held back because you have not yet found a solution to the Northern Ireland issue?

Mr Davis: No, that reverses the logic, Mr Kinnock. We have said since the beginning and, indeed, when we were at this stage of the first round of the negotiations, organising the four strands, we were very clear that we wanted Northern Ireland in there, because we view both the circumstances of Northern Ireland and the protection of the Good Friday agreement and, indeed, bluntly, the protection of the economy of our closest neighbour, Ireland, as fundamentally important.

That means it is important, but it does not mean that the best route to solution is via option C. Indeed, when I had a conversation with Michel about this before March, back at Downing Street, I said, “We should do them all in parallel”. The one that everybody agrees on—and I include the Taoiseach in this, and I think even Mr Coveney, who may have said some other things that I do not agree with—is the general view that a free trade agreement will make the Northern Irish border issue much easier to deal with. It will also protect both Northern Ireland’s and the Republic of Ireland’s markets and economic positions, so they have an interest in doing this too.

Stephen Kinnock: Secretary of State, I absolutely understand those arguments, but the British Government have made it clear throughout this process that there is an integral, intrinsic relationship between the Northern Ireland issue and the future relationship post-transition, and that the Northern Ireland issue is one of the three big-ticket issues under the divorce piece of this negotiation. You then move on to the future relationship post-transition, so, by their own admission, the British Government have been saying, “We cannot sort out the future relationship until we have sorted out Northern Ireland”. If that is the case and Northern Ireland still is not sorted, is it realistic that we are going to have a very detailed political declaration, given the very short timeframe that we have?

Mr Davis: Yes, I think it is. The thing to be aware of is that option C is, in essence, almost a reserve parachute, a final backstop guarantee for all elements of this. Nobody sees that as the most desirable outcome. Everybody sees the free trade agreement, option A, as the most desirable outcome, and that is true across the board, maybe with the exception of one or two people who want to keep us in the single market at almost any price, but I do not think there are many of them. I do not take your view. I think it can be done in parallel; indeed, we are intending to do it in parallel. That is part of the outcome of our 45-plus parallel strands.

Stephen Kinnock: I have one final question. Will the political declaration be sufficiently detailed that the OBR will be able to make an assessment of it prior to Members of Parliament having a vote on the draft agreement?

Mr Davis: Off the top of my head, I do not know. Let me just think this through for a second. Bear in mind that we are going to provide an economic assessment ourselves. The OBR is required by the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 to make two budget forecasts a year based on government policy. I am not sure quite how the timing of that will fall, so I do not know the immediate answer. However, to come back to the underlying point in much of the discussion earlier, nearly all of this will be in the public domain in the run up to October. Both the OBR and the National Audit Office have access to all government data anyway, so I do not see that being a problem. Let me have a think about that. If I am wrong about that, I will write to you.