Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of a “messy U-turn” after he indicated he expected an EU withdrawal deal 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 weeks.
In a letter to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee, Mr Raab wrote: “I would be happy to give evidence to the committee when a deal is finished and currently expect November 21 to be suitable.”
But, after the letter became public, the Department for Exiting the European Union said “There is no set date for the negotiations to conclude” and November 21 “was the date offered by the chair of the select committee for the Secretary of State to give evidence”.
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.”
Asked about the November 21 date, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “I think it’s entirely possible that we could make progress, enough progress, by then.”
Mr Raab’s letter, released by the committee on Wednesday, was dated October 24 and therefore does not reflect any breakthrough in the past few days.”
Brexit 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.
Mr Raab wrote: “Despite our differences, we are not far from an agreement on this issue. We agree on the principle of a UK-wide customs backstop. An agreement on the details of that backstop should be possible.”
“Both sides agree that this backstop cannot provide for a permanent UK/EU relationship and are committed to a future relationship that works for the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland.”
“We are open to talking about ways to achieve this and committed to continuing discussions in order to reach an agreement.”
“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.”
“We now need to acknowledge the progress that has been made and now work rapidly through the remaining issues and come to an agreement that works for both sides.”
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.
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.