Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of a “messy U-turn” after he indicated he expected an EU withdrawal deal to finalised by November 21, only for his department to later insist there was no set date.
Mr Raab set off a flurry of speculation when he appeared to suggest a Brexit agreement could be done within three week in a letter to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee.
But hours later, the department said “There is no set date for the negotiations to conclude”.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer was scathing about the move.
He tweeted: “This must be one of the quickest u-turns in political history. @DominicRaab told MPs that a Brexit deal would be done by the end of November.
“Three hours later his own department was forced to correct the record. What a mess.”
Downing Street would not be drawn on the November 21 date, with a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May stating: “We want to get a deal as soon as possible and that’s what we’re working to achieve.”
In a letter dated on 24 October to Hilary Benn, chair of the House of Commons Brexit committee, Mr Raab said that he “would be happy to give evidence to the Committee when a deal is finished, and currently expect 21 November to be suitable”. Mr Raab wrote that “the end is now firmly in sight and, while obstacles remain, it cannot be beyond us to navigate them.
“We have resolved most of the issues and we are building up together what the future relationship should look like and making real progress.”
Mr Raab had been due to give evidence to the committee on October 24, but pulled out shortly before the crunch October 17-18 European Council summit, with his office saying that he was committed to appear only once a deal was finalised.
In a letter accepting his proposal of a November 21 evidence session, committee chair Hilary Benn said he was “disappointed” with the new Brexit Secretary’s failure to follow the pattern of regular updates established by his predecessor David Davis.
Negotiations are deadlocked on the question of a “backstop” arrangement to guarantee that there will be no hard border in Ireland.
Mrs May insists she will not accept an EU proposal which would establish a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, while Brussels is resisting her plan to keep the whole UK temporarily in a customs union.
And he rejected as “not sufficient or effective” Mr Raab’s proposal that he could update the committee by letter until the deal was agreed.
“Having been a member of this committee, you will know that this is not how committees undertake inquiries and is not conducive to scrutiny,” said Mr Benn.
With Mr Barnier meeting “almost daily” with European Parliament representatives, the Government was failing to live up to Mr Davis’s promise to match the EU negotiator for openness, Mr Benn said.