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24 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

Why this exchange between David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg spells trouble for the government

May and Davis have been playing a rhetorical game for a while, but the music might be about to stop.

By Stephen Bush

Is the government about to find itself in the middle of a major row? David Davis put in a lively appearance at the Brexit select committee this morning, with the most eyecatching moments the parts where the Secretary of State gleefully admitted that some of the negotiations were more complicated than he’d suggested before he took up the post.

But the most significant exchange occurred not between Davis and any of the committee’s pro-European MPs, but between him and Jacob Rees-Mogg. In addition to being an ultra Brexiteer, Rees-Mogg is the new head of the European Research Group, the organisation through which the most devoted Conservative Leavers organise in Parliament.

Rees-Mogg described it as a “big shift in policy” that the government is no longer seeking an “implementation period” after the end of the Article 50 – one in which the old relationship gradually falls away and is replaced by the new – but a “transition period”, in which the United Kingdom, while no longer a voting member of the European Union, will remain subject to its rules, and indeed continue to pay into its budget for as long as it takes for the final terms of the new trade deal to be hammered out.

This isn’t entirely true, but it isn’t completely false either. Theresa May has talked rhetorically of an “implementation period” despite knowing full well that what the government is seeking is not a period of implementation but one of further negotiation. The British government’s position has always been to seek a transition, and the talk of implementation is, bluntly, an illusion to keep the Conservative Party united. The structure agreed to by the British government has always been to tackle legacy issues arising from Brexit and then begin hammer out the outline of the future relationship; not to have fully negotiated a new relationship by March 2019. Whatever the rhetoric coming out of Downing Street, the government has been headed towards a period in which the United Kingdom must follow all of the rules of the European Union without being able to shape them, and quite possibly for a very long time.

The big and important shift is that a) pro-Brexit MPs have started to notice in significant numbers that this is the case and b) the ERG is now led by a Brexiteer MP, who has always been quicker to spot when the government is moving away from a hard Brexit position in policy terms.

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Theresa May and David Davis could end up in a serious crisis sooner than they expect.

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