Brexit Secretary David Davis faced taunts of “is that it?” after failing to set out any details of the Government’s strategy for leaving the EU in his first Commons statement.
Theresa May had promised that the statement would - after weeks of uncertainty – reveal “the sort of relationship we want with the EU”, going beyond her much-repeated ‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan.
But MPs on all sides protested that Mr Davis had failed to deliver, beyond stating a determination to get “the best deal for Britain” and a unique agreement, rather than an “off-the-shelf solution”.
Predictably, Labour’s Brexit spokeswoman Emily Thornberry condemned “more empty platitudes from a Government that just continues to make it up as it goes along”.
But it was sacked former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan who pointed out that “two words” were missing from the statement – Single Market and whether the UK would remain part of it.
And another senior Tory Remainer, Ken Clarke, sarcastically congratulated Mr Davis on “not rushing anything”, adding: “I urge him to take as long as he possibly can.”
Even key Leaver Iain Duncan Smith – while supporting the Government’s strategy – admitted the determination to deliver Brexit in some form was “the one specific” given.
There were shouts of “waffle” and – from the SNP – of “is that it?”.
Mr Davis, flanked by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, did tell MPs that his fledgling department had recruited more than 180 staff in London, including the “brightest and best”.
He acknowledged that the public wanted to “know what Brexit will mean”, but defined it only by saying: “Simply, it means leaving the European Union.”
However, later, answering questions, Mr Davis did say that Article 50 would not be triggered “until the New Year” – hours after the prime minister declined to confirm that timetable.
And he went further than Mrs May’s careful tightrope-walking on the issue, by describing membership of Single Market as “very improbable” without firm restrictions on immigration.
Mr Davis said securing free trade – not Single Market membership – was the crucial issue, arguing that some countries outside the EU bloc were more successful than the UK in trading with it.
Many business leaders argue differently, worrying that a crucial common framework for trading regulations will be lost outside the Single Market.
The statement came after Mrs May, at a press conference in China, explained why she had rejected a points-based immigration system – despite the Vote Leave pledges to introduce one, during the campaign.
She said it would fail to deliver proper controls, pointing to the “abuses” she saw as Home Secretary, in particular large numbers of non-EU students who did not speak English or have courses to go to.
Mrs May said: “The system is being abused. But, because they met the criteria, they were automatically allowed in. And that’s the problem with the points-based system.
“I want a system when the Government is able to decide who comes into the country. I think that’s what the British people want. A points-based system means that people come in automatically if they just meet the criteria.”
Asked what controls she would adopt post-Brexit, Mrs May said there were “various ways” to achieve that, adding: “We will be coming forward in due course with proposals.”
She went on to refer to securing “an element of control” – which would fall far short of Vote Leave promises and risk a backlash from hardline Brexit supporters.
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