David Davis has backpedalled on his claim that a Brexit deal can deliver the “exact same benefits” as EU membership, now admitting it was little more than an ambition.
The Brexit Secretary said he would “make no apology” for being ambitious, but accepted what Britain achieves in talks will be a matter for negotiations with the EU.
Mr Davis’s comments came as he also insisted Theresa May’s linking of security cooperation to Brexit talks was not a threat to withdraw it from European allies.
He admitted however, that there is an “area of argument” with the EU about how talks should be conducted after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Britain would have to settle its divorce terms before discussing any future trade deal.
Asked about the “exact same benefits” phrase on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Davis said: “I make no apology for being ambitious about what we’re trying to do.
“The classical approach for a politician during a negotiation is to reduce expectations…that’s what people think is the ‘sophisticated’ way. We are playing for the national interest here I’m going to aim as high as conceivably possible.”
He added: “I want all of those things. I make no bones about it. I’m not going to apologise for aiming for that.”
Mr Davis made the claim in answer to a question from Conservative MP Anna Soubry in the Commons in January, when he said: “What we have come up with … is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.”
But after hearing Mr Davis’ words this morning, Ms Soubry tweeted: “David Davis now says @BBCr4today ‘exact same benefits’ is an ambition not a promise. Glad he cleared that up...”
The claim has even been taken on by the Labour party as a key test by which they will judge whether to back the Government’s Brexit deal or not.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said if the tests are not met it would “affect how Labour votes in the House of Commons” on any final deal.
Ms May also recently distanced herself from Mr Davis’s words in an interview, when she refused to repeat them.
Across the UK and Europe politicians reacted on Thursday to the Prime Minister’s letter triggering Article 50 in which she repeatedly linked security cooperation to a Brexit deal.
The European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt was one of the key figures who said security should not be used as a bargaining chip.
But in response, Mr Davis said the references to weakened security co-operation were “not a threat” to the 27 other EU members.
He added: “This is a statement of the fact that this would be harmful for both of us, if we don't get a deal. It's an argument for having a deal, and that's what we are after.”
He acknowledged, however, that there is a dispute over the way the negotiations with Brussels would proceed, with Ms May wanting talks on divorce terms and a future trade deal to take place in parallel, while the Commission and leaders like Ms Merkel want them back to back.
He said: “The Commission has taken a different stance and said 'we want to deal with the departure first and the ongoing relationship second'.
“There is an area of argument over this, an area of discussion over this, which is fine.”
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