Former minister says PM’s comments amount to ‘incredible open sesame’

David Davis has attacked Theresa May for admitting she would have to make compromises beyond the Chequers agreement to the European Union to achieve a Brexit deal, and warned he could not vote for the deal as proposed because it was worse than staying in.

The former Brexit secretary was speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show shortly after the prime minister had written a column for a Sunday newspaper saying she would “not be pushed into accepting compromises” on Chequers “that are not in our national interest”.

Davis, who resigned because he could not endorse the Chequers deal, said May’s words amounted to “an incredible open sesame”, arguing that the problem with the UK position was that it was “not the last step” for the European Union and that Brussels would not accept it.

His comments come at a time when the Conservative party is increasingly split over the Chequers agreement, which proposed that the UK should voluntarily submit to a common rulebook with the EU for food and goods, an idea that the party’s right says amounts to “rule-taking” from Brussels.

Davis said he could not vote for a final deal based on Chequers when it comes to parliament for a vote in the autumn because it would have been “rather odd for me to resign over something and vote for it” and said it was worse than remaining in the EU.

He claimed that “my old department has been working on a fallback for some time”, saying he believed it was still possible to strike a “free trade-plus” deal based on arrangements the EU has with Canada, South Korea or Australia – although the government has rejected this.

On the Northern Ireland border, Davis added: “I do think – I’m free to talk more freely now than perhaps when I was a minister – I do think we’ve heavily over-emphasised the problem on the Northern Ireland border … This is a much more straightforward issue to deal with if we choose to, if we put the political will behind it, we and the Irish Republic, the two together.”

On the same programme, the trade secretary, Liam Fox, indicated that the government may have to make further concessions. He said the EU had to understand “this is a negotiation”, and added: “We have already set out what we think is a reasonable position for the UK to have in our future trading relationship with Europe. We are waiting for the EU to come back to us with their view.”

Davis, meanwhile, stopped short of saying May would have to resign if she could not get her deal, as he hopes to persuade the government to change its position, and said he was not working with Boris Johnson to oust her.

“I don’t know what Boris wants to do,” Davis said, prompting Marr to respond that Johnson wants to be prime minister. Davis replied: “I don’t know what he is planning to do”.

Weekend reports had suggested that a member of staff from a firm part-owned by Sir Lynton Crosby, a long-time Johnson adviser, had been seconded to work with the pro-Brexit group Change Britain. The firm CTF said that “CTF’s staff are often consulted because of their campaign expertise and knowledge”, adding that Sir Lynton had been on holiday for five weeks.

In her article for the Sunday Telegraph, May again ruled out a second referendum. She also emphasised the UK was ready to walk away without a deal if talks with the EU did not conclude satisfactorily.

“For some sectors there would be real challenges for both the UK and the EU. But we would get through it and go on to thrive. So we will be ready for a no deal if we need to be. And I will not be pushed into accepting compromises on the Chequers proposals that are not in our national interest,” the prime minster wrote.

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