Britain will not have a Brexit plan until February but should be able to complete talks within 18 months and then go through a transitional phase of leaving the EU if necessary, David Davis has said.
The Brexit secretary gave the clearest indications so far of the government’s thinking on how to leave the bloc, including that it will refuse to allow the EU any control over the UK’s immigration policy, as he appeared before the House of Commons committee on exiting the European Union.
He said triggering article 50 before the end of March would set Britain on a straight path towards Brexit that would be “very, very difficult to revoke” but he also acknowledged the possibility of reversing the decision.
Government lawyers have argued that the article 50 process is irreversible and the UK would be legally bound to leave after that point. However, Davis suggested it could be feasible, though the chance is remote.
“There is a viewpoint, I think, which is only really fading, among some Europeans, that we can’t really mean this, that we can be persuaded to change our minds,” he said. “One of the virtues of the article 50 process [once it is started], it’s very difficult seeing it being revoked. We don’t intend to revoke it.” He added: “It may not be revocable – I don’t know.”
After Theresa May relented to Labour and backbench Tory pressure to publish a plan for Brexit, Davis said it would be released as soon as possible but there were “quite a few decisions still to be made” about the way Downing Street wants to leave the EU, including the impact on business sectors, justice and home affairs.
“It certainly won’t be next month,” he told MPs.
Despite the lack of a firm plan, Davis gave a series of hints about the direction of travel and argued that “everything is negotiable” within a year and a half of the formal article 50 notification in March. The deal would then take about six months to be agreed by European leaders, the European parliament and the British parliament.
His tone was slightly different from that of Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who said earlier this week that all “thoughtful politicians” were clearly in favour of striking a transitional deal with the EU to cushion companies from the possible consequences of Brexit.
There have been growing calls from business groups such as the CBI and the banks for a transitional period to smooth the Brexit process but Downing Street has so far refused to confirm it will seek this from the EU.
Davis’s comments on immigration came as the prime minister prepared to travel to Brussels for an EU summit on Thursday at which she was expected to use the UK’s influence to shape EU migration policy while Britain remains a member of the bloc. A Downing Street official said: “There is a while yet while we will still be at the table [at the EU] and we think there are things we can be doing now to... reduce the numbers coming to Europe.”
Speaking at the hearing, Davis said the UK was not opposed to transitional arrangements if they amounted to a Brexit “implementation phase” but only if it was really necessary and after the deal had been nailed down.
“Whatever the transitional arrangement is, we need to know where we’re going before we decide on the transition,” he said. “It seems to me that it will be perfectly possible to know what the endgame will be in two years.”
In terms of the UK’s demands, Davis said he was looking at different models for customs arrangements but taking control of immigration would be non-negotiable in talks, so the EU would have no say over whether its citizens have preferential access.
“What we have to bear in mind is that we have to pay respects to the outcome of the referendum, and therefore it’s got to be clear control by this parliament,” he said.
Asked if he thought discussion of issues like preferential, skills-based migration for EU citizens would feature in the negotiations, Davis said: “No, I don’t. I think that the operation of that decision after we have left the EU will be in the national interest and that will affect all levels of skill – the judgment that the government comes to as to what’s necessary for universities, what’s necessary for business, and what’s necessary for fruit picking.”
Davis ran through four possibilities on the UK’s membership of the customs union: being fully in, fully out, a partially inside Turkish model of being inside the customs union but outside the single market, and a Swiss model of being outside the customs union but with customs arrangements.
He revealed the government was looking at the Norway-Sweden border as a possible model for how the border could work between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Pressed by MPs about whether the UK could really pay for access to the single market after the end of transitional arrangements, he said he wanted to keep his options open.
Davis made clear that the UK would seek a trade deal at the same time as negotiations over exiting under article 50, but that preventing non-tariff barriers to services was probably more important than stopping the imposition of tariffs to goods.
At a separate hearing of the Commons business committee, Greg Clark, the business secretary, told MPs that the government persuaded Nissan to commit to its Sunderland plant by reassuring the Japanese carmaker that it would try to secure tariff-free access to the single market for its UK operations.
It comes as May hosted rebel Tory MPs pushing for the UK to stay as close as possible to the single market, whose group has gained the nickname the “new bastards” after the anti-European MPs who caused trouble for John Major in the 1990s.
They are calling for the prime minister to set out her strategy for Brexit in a white paper, but Davis told the hearing on Wednesday that the format and degree of detail had not yet been decided.
Responding to his appearance, the Tory MP Neil Carmichael, a supporter of Open Britain, said:“The government should bring forward their substantive plans in a white paper, which David Davis himself suggested before he joined the cabinet.
“There is a mandate to leave the EU but there is no mandate for a hard, destructive Brexit. The terms on which we leave should be subject to rigorous debate and scrutiny – in parliament and the country.”
The government could publish the letter it sent to Nissan reassuring them about Brexit once concerns about commercial sensitivity had passed, Clark told MPs. The letter contains confidential information that could be used by the carmakers’ rivals, he said.
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