David Davis yesterday insisted the government is not softening its approach to Brexit, despite suggestions that Theresa May is caving into pressure on both sides of the house.
The Brexit secretary dismissed claims that the Prime Minister and her team had changed tack since being weakened by the General Election.
Instead he argued that because ministers were talking about accepting some aspects of EU membership as part of a transitional phase, this was being “conflated” with a change in the government’s position.
“I believe we can get a free trade negotiation concluded, and a customs agreement negotiation concluded, in the period. What will be much more difficult, however, is to get all the practical implementations that go with it.
"Not so much for us; it will be quite tough to get our customs in the right place in two years, but it’s doable. But to get the French customs in the same place in two years, or the Belgian or the Dutch customs, I think is a different issue. That’s why a transitional period [may be necessary.]... And what people are doing, I think, is misinterpreting a statement saying ‘We might have to do something in [the] transition period’ as being an abandonment of the original aim.”
Davis told the House of Lords European Union Committee that his and chancellor Philip Hammond’s positions on this transitional period were so close “you could hardly get a cigarette paper between them”.
Davis added that the initial “emotional” response to Britain voting to leave the European Union, which had made early negotiations “difficult”, had largely eased off and cleared the way for more constructive discussions as it became apparent Brexit was not having a domino effect.
“At the beginning [of the negotiations] you’ll remember we had a slightly difficult month or two where there were talks of punishment and Lord knows what else,” Davis said, adding, “That was, I think, mostly an emotional response but not entirely. The bit that was not entirely an emotional response was the feeling amongst some members of the Commission in particular that they didn’t want to allow us to appear to profit from this decision in case it was an incentive for somebody else.
“I’ve always viewed that as a fear without foundation,” he added. “I don’t think anybody is likely to follow us down this route, we’re a very different country.”
He admitted there were, “no doubt, some members of the Commission probably would like this to be a difficult process for us”, but insisted that was not the prevailing sense within the remaining 27 member states.
However, some within the Select Committee noted that comments like the ones made by foreign secretary Boris Johnson - who had earlier in the day said the EU could “go whistle” for what he dubbed an “extortionate” divorce bill - were unhelpful.
“Bluntly, I wouldn’t worry,” Davis responded. “You will have to get the foreign secretary here to explain his views if you really wanted to. I’m not going to comment on other ministers.”