“It can’t come before we have the deal,” David Davis said on Wednesday, when asked about when MPs will get a vote on Brexit.
And with those eight words, the Government spent the next 24 hours chasing its tail.
Anti-Brexit MPs were fuming that the UK could leave the EU in March 2019 without Parliament getting a vote on the final deal.
The Brexit department issued a statement to try to reassure Parliament it would still have a role, but actually just reiterated Davis’ point that they wanted MPs to have a vote, but couldn’t guarantee it.
Davis was dragged before the Commons today to answer an urgent question on the confusion, but the truth is, there shouldn’t be any confusion.
As Davis often repeats, the EU operate a policy of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – and we know Brussels loves nothing more than pushing talks and discussions until 11th hour.
Remember David Cameron’s attempt to secure a new relationship with the EU ahead of the referendum? That involved negotiators sitting up all night on the very last day of talks eating Haribo in order to get a deal.
Indeed, even then the talks were concluded later than planned, leading Cameron to call an extremely rare Saturday morning Cabinet.
Davis’s point – which is entirely fair – is that if Brussels adopt that tactic again, and the talks literally conclude as the UK tumbles out of the EU on March 31 2019, how could Parliament possibly have a vote?
There simply wouldn’t be time, unless MPs were waiting in the Commons chamber, gathered around the red phone to Brussels, waiting Davis to read the full agreement down the line, and then they immediately marched through the division lobbies.
And what would that vote be? It would be on whether to accept the deal, or reject it and leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms. That scenario is surely more attractive to hard Brexiteers such as Owen Paterson and John Redwood than pro-EU MPs like Anna Soubry and Stephen Kinnock.
Even if the deal is done by October 2018, the vote on offer is still take-it-or-leave-it. If MPs vote down a deal they don’t like, could the Government really go back to Brussels to start negotiations again? That scenario might drag some more concessions out of the EU, but it could also see Brussels dig its heels in with just six months to go before the Article 50 clock expires.
Of course, the Government could try to engineer it so the talks drag out until March 2019, so any deal is presented as a fait accompli. But even then, MPs could still vote it down afterwards, and the UK leaves on WTO terms.
2) Theresa May Was Warned Triggering Article 50 Without A Plan Would Leave Us All Screwed
It wasn’t just David Davis committing news in front of a select committee on Wednesday.
The UK’s former chief diplomat to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, also decided to lay it all out there when he appeared before the Treasury committee.
Sir Ivan, who quit his Brussels post in January, told MPs the Prime Minister allowed the EU to “dictate” how the Brexit negotiations are being carried out by triggering Article 50 without a fully-formed plan.
May set the formal Brexit process into action in March, but at the first round of negotiations in June the Government instantly conceded to the EU’s timetable of settling citizens’ rights, the Northern Ireland border and the divorce bill.
No agreement has been reached on those issues, meaning talk on a future trade deal has been put on the back-burner.
Sir Ivan said he had advised against the starting of the process: “I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.
“My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate.’”
Sir Ivan also predicted if no trade agreement is reached between the UK and EU by next December the two sides will resort to conflict and “name-calling”.
Down the corrider, the chief executive of HMRC was unable to guarantee the new customs systems due to come online on January 2019 would be glitch-free, and he didn’t have enough money to upgrade the current system to act as a back-up.
When it comes to preparing for ‘no deal’, HMRC needs at least another £450million and an extra 5,000 staff.
3) Businesses Are Clashing With Downing Street Over The Implementation Period
Much of the talk earlier in the week was on transition.
Theresa May repeated in the Commons what David Davis had said a week earlier, namely that any deal on an implementation phase would be agreed at the same time as the trade talks are concluded.
The logic is: how can you agree an implementation period if you haven’t agreed what you are implementing?
Business groups are not happy with such an arrangement, and on Monday a letter drafted by the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the manufacturing trade body EEF, the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses urged David Davis to get the post-March 2019 transition phase agreed as soon as possible.
The letter reminded the Brexit Secretary that businesses “need agreement of transitional arrangements as soon as possible, as without urgent agreement many companies have serious decisions about investment and contingency plans to take at the start of 2018.”
In her Florence speech, May called for an implementation period of “around two years”, but according to The Guardian, Brussels are looking at no more than 20 months.
The paper claims senior officials believe a 31 December 2020 cut-off date makes sense as that’s when the EU’s seven-year budget period comes to an end.
The EU’s chief negotiation Michel Barnier has also flagged up this timeframe, telling European newspapers this week: “To my mind, it makes sense that it covers the financial period, so until 2020.”
4) Boris Johnson Went Amazingly Off-Message But No One Noticed For More Than A Week
Boris Johnson has been caught doing his bumbling off-message shtick again, but this time it might actually please some people.
In a video tweeted out by the British Embassy in Poland last Tuesday – but completely ignored until now – the Foreign Secretary unilaterally tells Polish citizens in the UK “your rights will be protected whatever happens” after Brexit.
That line is of course much more hardline than anything Theresa May has said, with the Prime Minister only going as far as protecting the right to remain.
Speaking in London, Johnson says: “We have 30,000 businesses in this country that are Polish. We have 1 million Poles in Britain.
“We are thoroughly blessed, we are lucky. And I have only one message for you all tonight: you are loved, you are welcome, your rights will be protected whatever happens.
“Yes. You are recording this? Your rights will be protected whatever happens.”
Labour and the Lib Dems dismissed the promise, with the latter’s Ed Davey, saying: “We all know what a Brexit promise from Boris Johnson is worth, and it’s considerably less than what he was paid for his last column.”
The comment is of course not Government policy, but it is yet another example of how Boris doesn’t want to be seen as the bad boy of Brexit.
Don’t Get Angry, Get Blogging…
At HuffPost we love a good blog, and here are the finest Brexit-penned entries from this week. Have a read, and if any of them provoke an urge in you to speak your brain, send a blog to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could find yourself in this very newsletter.
Jonathan Bartley on how the Government wants to shut down the Brexit debate.
Dr Ioannis Glinavos writes a note of thanks to Mr Heaton-Harris