It is “not in the national interest” for the government to reveal its Brexit plans before negotiations with the European Union, David Davis has told the Commons during his first interrogation by MPs as the minister in charge of the process.
During more than an hour of tough Commons questioning, including from some fellow Conservative MPs, Davis repeatedly refused to disclose even the government’s broad aims on how to balance access to the EU single market against controlling immigration.
But Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, did say he was confident the UK would be able to strike a new trade deal during the two-year process after article 50 is triggered, thus avoiding a default to unfavourable World Trade Organisation conditions.
Questioned by Jenny Chapman, the shadow junior Brexit minister, Davis quoted European commission guidance about how it was important to keep negotiating positions confidential before talks.
“What the opposition are trying to do is to put us in a disadvantaged position against the European Union,” Davis said. “That is not in the national interest.”
He added in response to another question: “I will make as much information public as possible without prejudicing our negotiating position.”
Questioned by his new Labour shadow, Keir Starmer, Davis also declined to say when the government’s Brexit plans would be presented to parliament. While parliament must be engaged in the process, “there will be a balance to be struck between transparency and good negotiating practice”, he said.
Asked by the Labour MP Emma Reynolds how the government would avoid the “cliff edge” of a default to WTO rules after Brexit, Davis said he was confident this would not happen: “Article 50 implies parallel negotiation. We need to conclude this within the two years to avoid any cliff edge.”
He was asked about the same issue by Hilary Benn, the chair of the new parliamentary committee scrutinising Brexit, who asked if the government would seek a transitional trade deal with the EU to avoid a default to WTO conditions.
This should not be needed, Davis replied: “The transition should be capable of being managed very clinically – we will do everything necessary to maintain that stability.”
Speaking before the debate, Benn said his pro-EU views did not mean he would seek to obstruct the exit process.
“Parliament has a job to scrutinise the process of our withdrawal from the European Union. I campaigned for remain, but I accept the referendum result,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Speaking the day after he was elected by fellow MPs to lead the exiting the EU select committee, Benn said the committee would push the government to “minimise uncertainty” about the future and thus limit the economic impact of the process.
“This is going to be the most complex, the most challenging task that the nation has faced in peace time, since the end of the second world war.
“It’s going to affect all areas of our national life and parliament needs to be sure that the government has got a plan, and that negotiations are successful, in trying to get the best deal for the United Kingdom while honouring the decision that the British people have made.”
In the election on Wednesday, Benn comfortably won the chair’s role over his opponent, Kate Hoey, a fellow Labour MP who backed leave in the referendum in June. She gained 209 votes to his 330.
The former shadow foreign secretary also said it was vital for parliament to have the final say over an eventual deal. “Since during the referendum one of the arguments for leaving was it would restore our sovereignty, it is inconceivable that parliament shouldn’t use this sovereignty – which, by the way, it had anyway – to determine what it thinks of the deal, this complex negotiation, when it is finally completed,” said Benn.
The “big issue” would be the tradeoff between controls on EU migration and some access to bloc’s single market, Benn said, noting the concerns over this by carmaker Nissan. “One of the tasks it seems to me that the government has got, and the nation has got, is we need where we can to minimise uncertainty,” he said.
“Although some people may argue that in the space of two years we can negotiate both the withdrawal from the European Union, all the mechanics, and reach an agreement on a new deal governing trade and access for our services – I somehow doubt we’ll do that in two years.”