Speaking ahead of the debate on the EU withdrawal bill on Thursday afternoon, Davis said the government had considered the benefits of retaining membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta).
“The simple truth is membership of Efta would keep us within the acquis [EU law] and it would keep us in requirements for free movement, albeit with some restrictions, but none have worked so far,” the Brexit secretary said.
“In many ways it’s the worst of possible worlds. We did consider it, maybe as an interim measure. But it would be more complicated and less beneficial.”
Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are members of Efta with varying relationships, which allows full access to the single market but means acceptance of some, though not all, EU law and regulation, without voting rights.
Although Davis ruled out membership of Efta, he said seeking “a transition based on maintaining the important components of what we currently have is the best way to do it”.
The subsequent debate on the withdrawal bill, one of the key pieces of Brexit legislation, saw complaints from a series of Conservative MPs about both the timetable to scrutinise the measure, and the sweeping powers it grants ministers.
The second reading has been given two days of debate, ending in a vote on Monday, although the close of the Monday session was later extended from 10pm to midnight.
Davis was challenged several times over why the subsequent committee stage, in which bills are examined in detail, would last eight days, as against 23 days for the Maastricht treaty bill in 1993 and 22 for the 1972 act that saw Britain first join the EU.
He defended the timetable, arguing that the withdrawal bill was “primarily technical” and was only about transposing laws, not making or amending them.
Rapid progress was vital to secure “the maximum possible legal certainty and continuity” for people and businesses ahead of the moment Brexit happened, Davis said, at which point “a large part of our law would fall away”.
He told the Commons: “Without this legislation a smooth and orderly exit is impossible.
“We cannot await the completion of negotiations before ensuring this legal certainty and continuity at the point of our exit. To do so or to delay or oppose the bill would be reckless in the extreme.”
Introducing the withdrawal bill, which he called “the most significant piece of legislation to be considered by this house for some time”, Davis said the powers it gives ministers to amend laws under what is known as secondary legislation, without a debate or vote from MPs, were vital for a smooth Brexit process.
Labour has tabled an amendment opposing the bill at the second reading, arguing that the powers are too sweeping, and unnecessary.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, dismissed Davis’s argument that the process was mainly technical. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, calling it “a colossal task likely to involve a whole host of choices”.
The section of the bill giving ministers “Henry VIII” powers to amend legislation were drafted so broadly and with so few safeguards they could even be used to arbitrarily change the very law that created them, Starmer argued.
“The delegated legislation can amend the primary act itself,” he told MPs. “That is as wide as I have seen in my experience. What are the limits? What are the safeguards?”
A series of Conservative MPs – most of them limited to five-minute speeches due to the time constraints – said that while they would be most likely to support the second reading vote they expected concessions later in the process.
Kenneth Clarke, the veteran former minister and long-time Europhile, said he had yet to decide how he would vote: “I’m actually going to listen to the debate, which is a very rare feature in this house.
“And if the government isn’t going to move in the next two days of debate, well I think we may have to force it to go back to the drawing board and try again.”
Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary and another prominent backbench warning voice on Brexit, rejected the argument by some of her fellow MPs that seeking to amend the withdrawal bill amounted to frustrating the verdict of last year’s EU referendum.
“Parliamentary scrutiny is not an affront to democracy,” she said. “It is its very essence. The true saboteurs of Brexit are those who would sanction the exclusion of parliament from this process. The debate on this bill has only just started.”
The former attorney general Dominic Grieve was more explicit still in his criticism of what he called “in many respects an astonishing monstrosity of a bill”.
He said: “The government needs support and it will have it from me. But equally, I have to say, that unless this bill is substantially improved in the course of the committee stage, I regret to have to say I will be in no position to support it at third reading in its current form.”
Davis signalled a willingness to be flexible, saying he welcomed suggestions for change “from those who approach the task in good faith and in a spirit of collaboration”. But he condemned Labour’s move to oppose the second reading, calling this “cynical [and] unprincipled”.
Iain Duncan Smith, the strongly pro-Brexit former Tory leader, said Starmer’s position ran counter to Labour’s backing for the wider Brexit process.
“To come out and vote against the principle of this bill is to vote against the idea of having to make the changes to European law to transpose them into UK law,” he said. “And that is the absurdity that they’ve got into.”
Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons committee on Brexit, rejected this, saying: “This is not about defying the will of the British people. This is about how sensibly we are going to give effect to it.”
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