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5 September 2016

Brexit minister David Davis speaks for the first time – but what does he actually mean?

The Brexiteer said: "Brexit simply means leaving the European Union."

By Julia Rampen

David Davis appeared in the House of Commons on Monday flanked by two fellow Brexiteers – Liam Fox, and a smirking Boris Johnson. 

It was Davis’ first appearance taking questions from a front bench since 2008, and nearly two decades since he stood on the Government front bench. He joked that one card congratulated him for his resurrection. 

But while it’s been a while, Davis has clearly not forgotten how to avoid giving a straight answer. 

The Minister for Brexit set out in one speech what has been dribbled out over the summer, that the Government will guarantee EU funding streams till 2020, negotiators will take their time, campaign for a good trade deal and that it doesn’t mean turning our backs on Europe. 

But, as Labour and Scottish National MPs pointed out, he didn’t really say anything new at all. 

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In a typically bland statement, he declared:  

“Naturally people will want to know what Brexit means. Simply it means leaving the European Union. So we will decide on our borders, our laws and the taxpayers’ money. It means getting the best deal for Britain, a deal that’s unique for Britain.”

Luckily, MPs get to ask questions.

Pressed on the Prime Minister’s comments that a points-based immigration system was not a “silver bullet”, Davis said she was interested in ” a results-based immigration system”. Pressed further, he said immigration rules would be more rigorous, not less. 

He struck a softer tone on employment rights. He stated:  “A very large percentage of those who voted to leave were the British industrial working class. It is no part of my brief to undermine their rights.”

But how negotiating this would fit in with his determination to make Britain “a beacon of free trade”, he was not clear. Michael Gove, a Brexiteer now relegated to the back benches, crowed that the economy had bounced back and the experts “had oeuf on their face”. But Davis cautioned: “Let’s not get too optimistic before we close the deal.”

His insistence that the British people had spoken, and that Brexit negotiations  did not require parliamentary approval, raised some ire. Labour MP Mike Gapes demanded: “If we are a sovereign supreme parliament why are we not getting a decision before Article 50 is triggered?”

After other MPs took up the complaint, he backtracked, telling the house they were “overinterpreting what I’ve said”. MPs would get a chance to speak on Brexit negotiations after Article 50 was triggered, he suggested. 

Davis’ biggest stumbling point was Northern Ireland, which along with Scotland voted for Remain. He promised “no return to hard borders”, but acknowledged it would “be one of the more difficult elements”. 

Nevertheless, he hinted the Government will play hardball, declaring: “This is a national decision. A whole United Kingdom decision. Whilst we will seek to protect the interests of every part of the UK, that does not mean that any part has a veto, least of all for partisan reasons.”