Parliament may not get to vote on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU until after it has actually left, Brexit Secretary David Davis has said.
He told MPs there could not be a vote until after the withdrawal deal had been sealed and this could happen at the “59th minute of the 11th hour”.
Pressed on whether this meant MPs might not get their say before the 29 March 2019 exit, he said “that’s correct”.
He also said a transition deal relies on a wider agreement with the EU.
The government agreed earlier this year to give Parliament a say on the outcome of the current negotiations but Downing Street has indicated that this will not stop the UK from leaving.
Mr Davis told the Brexit select committee that it had always been the government’s expectation that the vote would take place before the matter was considered by the European Parliament, expected to be late in 2018.
But he said that the timing of the vote depended on when and if a deal was struck. “It depends when it concludes,” he said. “It can’t come before we have the deal.”
Pressed by Labour MP Hilary Benn on whether this might not happen before the end of March 2019, he replied “yeah that’s correct, in the event that we don’t do the deal until then”.
The government, Mr Davis said, was aiming to conclude all its negotiations – including a future trade deal – by the time of its withdrawal and while this was perfectly feasible, it could be a close-run thing.
“It is no secret that the way the union makes its decisions tends to be at the 11th minute… 59th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day and so on and that’s precisely what I expect to happen here.”
“It will be very high stress, very exciting for everyone watching, but that’s what will happen. In technical terms, there is no reason why we can’t do this in the time available… I am quite sure in my mind we can do this.”
Under the terms of existing EU treaties, the UK would not be able to sign a trade deal with the EU until it becomes a “third party” and has left the EU.
Mr Davis said “technically” this was true, but said that a deal could be signed almost immediately after. “It could be a nano second.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May suggested the two-year implementation period she was hoping for was dependent on details of the final “partnership” being clear at the time of exit.
This alarmed business groups, which warned earlier this week that the UK risks losing jobs and investment without an interim deal before agreed much sooner.
Pressed on this during the hearing, Mr Davis said by the first quarter of next year, it “should be pretty plain what we are trying to deliver” in terms of transition, which he said would look “much like” the status quo in terms of trade, migration and other arrangements.
An early transition agreement was vital to give businesses certainty and the UK and European governments time to prepare, he said, although he insisted the UK would be ready for all the “critical” changes in March 2019.
However, he noted the EU had not yet drawn up their final negotiating guidelines on any transition and both sides needed to know what the UK’s final destination would be before this was settled.
“What we are intending to do is get a form of implementation agreed quickly but we want to conclude the overall negotiation – whatever outcome may be – by the end of March 2019,” he said.
Both sides, he said, had to know “where the UK was going” and whether the implementation period would lead to a full trade deal or what he described as a “bare bones” agreement where there were understandings in key areas but the UK defaulted to World Trade Organisation rules.
Mr Davis, who is leading UK negotiations, said he was aiming for minimal disruption during a transition period, with the UK retaining existing arrangements on customs, financial services, aviation and migration from the EU and also having access to EU trade deals with countries like Canada and Japan.
While the European Court of Justice would continue to have jurisdiction in the UK at the start of this period, he said he believed by the end an alternative system of international arbitration would have been set up.
He suggested that an outcome where the two sides were unable to agree anything was “off the probability scale” but conceded in such a circumstance, the UK would not have to pay any financial liabilities.