Stephen Kinnock: I want to go back to the cross-party talks. You set out the way that the Government interpreted Labour’s priorities and objectives going into those talks. Do you feel that the Labour side entered those talks in good faith?
Mr Lidington: Yes, I do, and not only because that is what they said to us directly. There were eight plenary meetings of the two negotiating teams, in addition to separate meetings between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and what we termed working groups where particular Ministers and shadow Ministers went off to try to resolve one or two dossiers outside the plenaries. Those meetings usually took a couple of hours apiece, so there was a lot of senior-level time and energy, not to mention the preparation by our officials and advisers, which I think means that people were taking it seriously. Particularly at the start, in the first meeting, there was quite a lot of feeling our way from both sides, because this was not the sort of scenario that any of us was used to—certainly not between the two big parties at Westminster—but I think the intentions were serious on both sides.
Stephen Kinnock: When you look at the product of the talks, which was the withdrawal agreement Bill—the talks had collapsed, but a couple of days later, the Government published that Bill and a list of 10 points summarising what had shifted and changed—do you think the Government had moved to a place where it would have been reasonable to expect the Labour side to accept what was in the end the content of the withdrawal agreement Bill as proposed by the Prime Minister? Obviously, it is important to focus on the words “good faith” and “reasonable”, which are subjective terms, but in terms of, as you say, the distance between the two sides, the negotiations and the product that was put on the table, are you disappointed by Labour’s decision not to accept the terms of the withdrawal agreement Bill and to reject it? Do you feel that that was a reasonable decision for Labour to make?
Mr Lidington: The last question is one to put to my Labour counterparts. To answer Mr Kinnock’s question, I thought we made a good offer. I think it would not have been reasonable to expect the Government to go further on a confirmatory vote other than to guarantee parliamentary time.
Stephen Kinnock: At Committee stage?
Mr Lidington: It could be Committee of the whole House or both in Committee and on Report. I think our private view was that it seemed unlikely at the time we were having those talks that there would be a majority for a second referendum. I might be right or wrong about that assumption, but we thought the right way forward was for the House to come to a decision, not for the Government to change their position.
On customs, we felt that both sides wanted what we sometimes termed the “benefits” of a customs union—trade between the UK and the EU without tariffs, quotas, rules of origin declarations and bureaucracy. Where we differed was that the Government believe we can do that and still have the freedom to pursue an independent trade policy. Whether future FTAs were compatible with that obviously would be affected by whatever we had agreed in practice in phase 2 with the EU, but we felt we could have that additional freedom, whereas the Labour party view was that the better way forward in their judgment for the country was to be part of EU negotiations and to try to construct some kind of say for the United Kingdom in those. We had our views on how practical that objective was, and each side probably said that the other was asking for something that was not practical and could not be achieved. In summary, that is where the key differences were.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you. Did you provide the Labour side with written proposals and written material to support the negotiations?
Mr Lidington: Yes.
Stephen Kinnock: What was the content of those documents?
Mr Lidington: At different stages, we proposed different formulations. We also tried to craft position papers that we thought might represent where there was a landing ground between the two sides. The Labour party could then come back and critique some of this and say, “We might be happy with this line, but we do not think this bit fairly represents where we are coming from.” There were documents.
I say again that these things did not have Cabinet or shadow Cabinet approval. They were working negotiating papers, because we were into a discussion that involved legislation and possible changes to the political declaration that we might seek jointly from the European Union, and therefore there was no avoiding the need to set words down on paper so that everyone was clear about what is or is not proposed.
Stephen Kinnock: Would you be prepared to share those papers with the Committee?
Mr Lidington: What I would say is that, after this meeting, were the Chair to write to me formally, I would consider that. The qualification is that these were treated by both sides as confidential talks. I don’t think either of us set out to leak what was in those papers. I think I would want to talk both to Labour representatives and to those other Ministers who were on the negotiating team to see what we could provide. I would seek to be as helpful to the Committee as I could be.
Stephen Kinnock: Subject to the Chair’s confirmation, I think it would be useful and interesting to see those papers. I have one final question on the issue of the customs union. What was finally proposed in the withdrawal agreement Bill in essence is a customs union in all but name until the general election. The deal was that you go into the next general election and each party would be welcome to take a position on the customs union and put that into its manifesto. Labour may well campaign for a more permanent off-the-shelf version of the customs union and the Conservative party might do something else. That is a reasonable position, isn’t it, to say in essence, “This is a compromise, whereby we make this arrangement to enable us to leave the European Union with a deal, but there is a general election coming at some point and the two parties can campaign on a different policy, should they wish to do so”? That is your understanding of what it being proposed?
Mr Lidington: That’s right. In effect, that said to the Opposition that we cannot completely bridge the differences between us, so part of the solution is to leave with a deal. As Mr Kinnock says, the formulation that we agree is framed in such a way to give each party the opportunity to seek a mandate for the particular model of a future customs relationship with the European Union that the party prefers.