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Ken Clarke leads Tory calls for MPs vote on negotiating strategy before Brexit

Ken Clarke has led Tory calls for the Government to give MPs a vote on its negotiating strategy before triggering formal Brexit talks.

The eu rophile former chancellor said the existing commitment from ministers to publish a Brexit plan is " extremely vague", adding the " strategic objectives" should be outlined in a document.

Mr Clarke suggested this should then require the approval of the Commons before Prime Minister Theresa May can begin the formal talks to leave the EU.

Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed Mr Clarke's comments were an indication that he did not agree with the result of June's referendum.

The exchanges came after Labour said it will not accept a "late, vague plan" for Brexit ahead of voting to trigger Article 50

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the Government must publish its outline for Brexit well ahead of any vote, to allow any amendments to be considered from both sides of the House.

But he was forced to insist Labour did not intend to delay the process beyond the end of March, amid pressure from a number of Tory MPs.

Sir Keir also faced accusations from Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas of "falling into a Tory trap" by supporting the Government amendment to the Labour motion calling for a Brexit plan to be published.

Faced with a revolt by up to 40 Tory MPs, the Prime Minister on Tuesday bowed to pressure and backed a Labour motion which says she should publish a plan before triggering the formal process of leaving.

In return, most of the rebels and Labour are expected to back a compromise Government amendment to support Mrs May's pledge to invoke Article 50 to start Brexit by April.

Mr Clarke, intervening on Mr Davis, said: "Quite apart from the legalities of the situation, we do have to address the political question of the accountability of Government to this House for its important policy.

"This word plan is being used in an extremely vague way and could cover some of the vague assertions ministers have been making for the last few weeks.

"Will you accept the House requires a description, published in a white paper preferably, of the strategic objectives the Government is going to be pursuing, submit that strategy to a vote of the House and once it has got the House's approval then it can move to invoking Article 50?"

Mr Davis replied: "You are at least straightforward in what you say - you don't really agree with the outcome of the referendum.

"My view, I agree with you to some extent, is very clear - you said the plan is vague. In fact, I think what I've said already to this House in terms of giving every possible information - subject to not undermining the negotiation - is actually more comprehensive.

"But there's not an issue here that we're not going to allow the House votes - we can't do it as a Government, even if we wanted to."

He added there will be "considerable amounts of legislation" during the negotiations.

Opening the debate, Sir Keir claimed the Government had "caved in" by supporting an amended version of the Labour motion.

He said: "The Government must now prepare its plan and publish it.

"And I put the Government on notice, that if it fails to produce a plan by the time we are debating Article 50 legislation - if we are, assuming the Government doesn't win (the Supreme Court appeal) - amendments from this side and possibly from the other side of the House will be put forward setting out the minimum requirements of a plan.

"In other words, we're not going to have a situation where the Government seeks a vote in a vacuum, or produces a late, vague plan."

Sir Keir reiterated the Opposition does not want to "frustrate the process or delay" the PM's timetable, a stance questioned by Mr Davis and other Tory MPs.

Labour frontbencher Sir Keir also said he accepted the Government will not make public all the details and tactics of its negotiating position.

But he said it is essential MPs and the public are given a plan that outlines the starting position, with enough detail to "end the circus of uncertainty" on issues such as the single market, the customs union and transitional arrangements.

He said: " Asking for a plan setting out the objectives is not to seek to undermine the UK's negotiating plan, nor is it to seek a running commentary.

"But it is, in fact, to have clarity, scrutiny and accountability."

Conservative former justice minister Dominic Raab accused Sir Keir of trying to wreck Brexit.

He said: "I can understand him pressing the Government for its plan, I can understand him setting down his red lines, I can't understand him wanting to enshrine it in legislation.

"The only reason for doing that is so the Labour Party can set the Government up to be sued later. Isn't the truth - will he come clean - it's wrecking tactics by any other name?"

Sir Keir dismissed this assertion, saying: "The answer to the question is no".

He said the plan must also have enough detail to allow the relevant parliamentary bodies to scrutinise it effectively and for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to do its job properly.

Conservative Crispin Blunt, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told Sir Keir: " I'm fascinated by this focus on the plan and the amount of work you're going to invite the OBR to do and everything else.

"You do understand that no plan survives engagement with the enemy."

Labour MPs were among those who took exception to the phrase used, with Mr Blunt insisting he was using a "military metaphor".

He added: "It is plain our negotiating hand is clear and it's clear it's not compatible with the position being taken by our 27 partners, so this is all going to change in the course of the negotiations and we're going to have to leave it to the Government to make those decisions."

Sir Keir said he believed Mr Blunt may "on reflection" think he "didn't use the right word in describing our partners as the enemy".

Mr Davis defended the Government's insistence that the detail of its negotiating strategy should remain secret.

He said: "The reason for this is to retain room for manoeuvre including the ability to give and take, to trade off between different interests, to maximise the value of concessions and to do so without always giving the other side advance notice.

"We must retain the ability to negotiate with a high degree of agility and speed and the more complex the negotiation the more important this is."

Mr Davis likened the forthcoming Brexit negotiations to trying to thread the eye of a needle.

"If you have a good eye and a steady hand it is easy enough," he said.

"If somebody jogs your elbow it's harder. If 650 people jog your elbow it's very much harder."

Tory Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) intervened to ask Mr Davis to commit to giving Parliament a vote on ratifying the final Brexit deal struck between the Government and Brussels.

He said: "Do you accept that you can be an honest Brexiteer who wants to get this through but still want to proclaim parliamentary sovereignty?

"That's a perfectly logical point of view."

Mr Davis replied: "Actually, there is a law that applies to it. The Constitutional Reform Act 2010.

"We are effectively bound by that."

Sir Keir then intervened and asked Mr Davis to confirm that there will be a vote on the final deal.

Mr Davis said: "All I can say is what I have said before which is that is what I expect, simple as that."

When pushed by Labour former frontbencher Chris Bryant to guarantee a vote, Mr Davis said: "If the European Union Parliament has a vote, it's inconceivable this House doesn't, simple as that."

Mr Davis was also grilled by a number of MPs on whether the Government wanted the UK to remain in the customs union.

He said: "What the Prime Minister said is this is not a binary option, there are about four different possibilities and we are still assessing that.

"I have given an undertaking to the Opposition spokesman that I will notify the House in detail when we come to that decision, so that's the point."

Mr Davis insisted that "no law will be changed without the explicit approval of Parliament".

The Brexit Secretary said the Government backed the "spirit" of Labour's motion with the caveat that "nothing we say will jeopardise our negotiating position".

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said he would rather stay in the European Union than leave and remain in the customs union.

He said: "Why would the United Kingdom want to stay in a customs union, when one of the key elements that is important on making that important decision to leave the European Union is we get back the opportunity to make our own trade arrangements.

"I'd rather we stayed in than stay in the customs union, because it seems completely pointless to me to actually embroil ourselves on the customs union, go through all this rigmarole of arguments and debates and rows, only to find at the end of the day there is no jewel in the crown at the end."

Mr Duncan Smith also accused Labour members of not really wanting to leave the EU, but found themselves representing constituencies that voted to leave in June's referendum.

The SNP's Europe spokesman, Stephen Gethins, said Scotland wanted to retain freedom of movement and suggested he would welcome control over immigration for Scotland.

He made the point in reference to former education secretary Michael Gove, who said during the referendum campaign that Scotland could control immigration in the event of a Leave vote.

Mr Gethins said: "It's good to see the member for Surrey Heath is in his place today, for was it not him that said Scotland could have control over immigration if we voted to leave the European Union?

"I would be delighted to hear of their plans when the minister comes up. And he's (Mr Gove) nodding still, and I look forward to him joining us in the lobbies at some point as well.

"He can come to his roots and we'll welcome him on this particular issue."

The SNP has tabled an amendment calling on the Government to give the devolved administrations a formal role in Brexit negotiations before Article 50 is triggered.

"This motion fails to take on board the impact on devolved administrations, and a huge array of questions lie unanswered that are their direct responsibility, not just in Edinburgh but also in Belfast and Cardiff as well," said Mr Gethins.

Mr Clarke said it is clear the Government does not have a strategy for Brexit and that the Brexiteers "don't agree with each other".

He warned that if Parliament takes "careless" decisions then it could set a precedent that results in the "weakening of the system of checks, balances and accountability which I think is crucial to our constitution".

He dismissed Government assertions the Labour motion amounted to a threat.

Mr Clarke said: "This is a harmless resolution, an absolutely plain and simple resolution setting out what you would expect to happen in any similar circumstance, and would certainly have expected to happen at any time probably over the last 100 or 150 years. Certainly at every Parliament I've sat in."

The former chancellor said a government would be expected to set out a plan for the role of the UK it is trying to seek and the Commons would vote on the strategy.

The process of parliamentary scrutiny should help ministers improve their Brexit plan, he added, as he tore into what he said was a lack of a Government strategy.

He said: "In strengthening its negotiating position the Government could actually benefit from having a proper process, particularly as at the moment it is sadly clear from the constant remarks made to the newspapers and the leaks now and again that at the moment the ministers have no idea what the strategy is anyway.

"And they don't actually agree with each other."

He said that while Britain voted to leave the EU, the public did not vote for what might replace it.

"These choices which the ministers are now struggling with, for which they should be accountable to us, would have been a mystery to 99% of the people listening to the debate and voting in the referendum," he said.

"Brexiteers in the Government don't agree with each other on the path they should now follow, and we should go back to parliamentary democracy and accountability to this House."

He added: "No Government that I can recall would have had the nerve to come along to Parliament and say 'We are exercising the royal prerogative, we are not actually going to go to you'.

"It is the nature of accountability - I'm not sure the Government has totally picked up the point yet."

He also launched a blistering attack on the Government's "vague plan".

He told MPs: "We have been told the plan is to have a red, white and blue Brexit and we are the leaders in free trade whilst giving up all the conditions that govern free trade in the single market."

Mr Clarke added: "We need a White Paper, a strategy, votes in this House and clarity."

Hilary Benn, chairman of the Brexit select committee, urged an end to the divisive debate around Brexit as he demanded clarity over the type of deal the Government hopes to strike.

He said: "I want to begin by expressing my concern about the continuing tone of some of this debate around the UK's exit from the European Union and to express the hope - that may be vain - that today will mark the end of the phony war."

He said dismissing MPs as remoaners "does a profound disservice to the scale of the task we face as a country, to the seriousness of the task and the importance of the outcome to every single person who lives in the United Kingdom".

He said Labour accepts the outcome of the referendum but ministers must come forward with a plan.

Questions over Britain's relationship with the single market, the future of schemes such as university exchange programme Erasmus and the issue of transitional arrangements must all be addressed, Mr Benn added.

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