Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has backtracked after suggesting that a deal with the EU could be agreed within three weeks, by November 21st.
Responding to a letter from Labour MP Hilary Benn, chair of the Commons’ Brexit select committee, Raab said he expected a deal to be signed and he would be “happy to give evidence” to MPs on it.
While the letter did not offer any fresh insight into the progress of negotiations, Raab said the UK and EU now “agree on the principle of a UK-wide customs backstop”, adding: “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.”
But within hours, Raab’s department appeared to row back on his claims, saying: “There is no set date for the negotiations to conclude.
“The 21st November 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 change in tone.
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.”
Uncertainty persists with the Article 50 deadline looming in March, but Raab’s earlier comments raised the prospect that the UK could be just days away from publishing its long-awaited draft Brexit deal, with an EU summit expected to take place over November 17 and 18.
Prime Minister Theresa May will offer MPs a meaningful vote on the deal soon after.
She is attempting to secure an agreement based on her Chequers plan, which would include the UK entering into a customs arrangement, joint jurisdiction with the European Court of Justice and a so-called “common rule book” on goods.
The PM had previously told the Commons that a deal was “95% done” but conceded that the “sticking point” had been a backstop on the Northern Irish border, with May underlining that she would not back down and back an arrangement which would draw a customs line down the Irish Sea.
The apparent development set the scene for a showdown in the Commons over whether MPs will back a Chequers-style plan.
Backbench Brexiteers are adamant they will rebel should the deal tie Britain into a customs union indefinitely.
But it is unclear how many Labour MPs will be prepared to support May should they fear that the true alternative is the UK crashing out without any deal whatsoever.
The Labour frontbench, meanwhile, say the party to vote down the deal and push for a general election, saying the agreement will not pass their “six tests” and could place jobs and the economy at risk.
If the Opposition fails to secure a fresh UK poll, however, Jeremy Corbyn may demand a re-run of the Brexit referendum.
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.
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.
UPDATE: This article has been updated with a statement from the Department for Exiting the European Union.