David Davis on his Customs Union U-turn: 'As the facts changed, I changed my mind'

PUBLISHED: 14:21 24 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:31 24 January 2018

Brexit secretary David Davis

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Remainers have seized on comments made by Brexit secretary David Davis today in which he said he had changed his mind on Customs Union membership - saying the British public could change their mind too.

Giving evidence before the Commons Brexit Select Committee today, Mr Davis shrugged off previous comments he had made backing the UK's Customs Union membership to protect European trade and allow other trade freedoms.

He told MPs on the committee: "Basically I looked at the facts, and as the facts changed, I changed my mind."

The comments were quickly picked up by pro-Europeans, including Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who tweeted: "If Davis can change his mind, so can the British public."

In an article published in 2013, Mr Davis was unambiguous in his support for the UK's continued membership, saying: "My preference would be that we should remain within the Customs Union of the EU.

"What this means is that we would have to maintain a common external tariff barrier (only about 2.4% on non-agricultural goods) and give up some freedoms in terms of negotiating our trading arrangements with third countries.

"The advantage would be that our manufacturers would not face complex and punitive 'rules of origin' tariffs if parts of their products were made in, say, China.

"That would also be the arrangement that would allow true free trade in both directions across the Channel, so Continental manufacturers would benefit and therefore prefer it."

Mr Davis also laughed heartily when the committee's chair, Hilary Benn, quoted directly from an article he had written for the ConservativeHome website in July 2016, when he said new free trade deals would be completed before the UK's negotiations with the EU had finished.

In the article, Mr Davis wrote: “I would expect the new prime minister on 9 September to immediately trigger a large round of global trade deals with all our most favoured trade partners.

“So within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete, and therefore before anything material has changed, we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.”

Presented with the comments, Mr Davis asked: "What date was that? I think that was before I was a minister."

When Mr Benn responded it was "just before you were a minister", Mr Davis laughed: "Right. So that was then, this is now!". The UK could not, and still cannot, complete any independent trade deals while still within the EU.

Elsewhere, Mr Davis was asked by Hywel Williams, the Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon, for a list of the Brexit department's work streams.

Mr Davis bizarrely responded by claiming that “I remember during the cold war that the MoD [Ministry of Defence] classified the number of teabags it purchased” on the basis that the figure might give away how many people were working in the department.

And he said that anybody who used the phrase “red lines” when going into a negotiation was an “idiot”.

In 2014 Mr Davis asked then prime minister David Cameron to set out his own “red lines” for the negotiations ahead of the referendum, saying: “As the Conservative Party and only the Conservative Party will deliver a referendum and a renegotiation on Europe, will the prime minister tell us his intentions of bringing to this House the red line issues that will feature in his renegotiations, and can he give us a preview of some of those issues today?”

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