The chairman of a committee at war over Brexit has denied trying to use it to keep Britain in the European Union indefinitely.
Bitter divisions erupted after Leave supporters refused to back a report recommending extending the transition period and the exit date if necessary. Tory and DUP MPs forced the Exiting the EU Committee to publish rival recommendations within the official text that was backed by the majority of members.
Prominent Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg attacked the “high priests of Remain” for pushing through a “partisan” report. But Labour committee chairman Hilary Benn, a Remain supporter, denied trying to delay Brexit indefinitely.
He told BBC One’s Sunday Politics: “That is not the case. This is not about undermining the referendum result. “It is about this problem that we face. There are seven months to go until the Article 50 negotiations are due to end. There’s a whole host of issues that haven’t yet been addressed.”
Mr Benn added: “What we are saying is, if there are a whole load of things that have not yet been negotiated, then the Government could ask for an extension to the Article 50 process.” The committee split on a series of votes over the content of its report on the progress of withdrawal negotiations.
Mr Rees-Mogg and fellow Conservatives Sir Christopher Chope, Andrea Jenkyns, Craig Mackinlay, and John Whittingdale, along with the DUP’s Sammy Wilson refused to sign off the final version. They used parliamentary procedures to ensure a “minority” report was included in the publication of the main text, a move rarely used.
Committee member Mr Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-supporting Tory European Research Group, said: “The committee’s majority report is the prospectus for the vassal state. It is a future not worthy of us as a country, and I am sure that Theresa May will rightly reject a report by the High Priests of Remain.
“The majority report would keep us in the customs union and the single market which is an attempt to keep us in the EU by sleight of hand. Those of us who respect the instructions the people gave us in the referendum could not support so partisan a text.
“The majority report relies upon discredited economic models and makes no acknowledgement of past analytical failures. It appears to have been written in the slough of despond, despairing and defeatist.”
The minority report said a 21-month transition arrangement is “ample” time and warned a prolonged period “would be difficult for the UK and would not respect the referendum result”.
It says the UK would still be bound by EU rules and would have to hand over cash with no say on how it is spent if the implementation arrangements are extended.
Mr Whittingdale, vice chairman of the committee, said: “I am very disappointed that the committee was unable to produce a unanimous report and instead divided along the same lines as in the referendum campaign.
“For a number of us the chairman’s report was far too negative and we do not believe that its conclusions are borne out by the evidence we heard. The report’s recommendations essentially ignore the wishes of the people and would delay Brexit by an indefinite period.
“This disrespects the referendum result, and it ignores the manifesto commitments of the parties pledged to honouring it, who between them got more than 80% of the popular vote.”
The Department for Exiting the European Union insisted a “great deal of progress” had been made since the negotiations began last year, including securing citizens’ rights, agreeing a financial settlement and setting out the approach to the Northern Ireland border.
“Importantly, the UK and the EU are equally committed to ensuring that our departure does not lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” a spokesman added.
“We are currently discussing the terms of an implementation period and are confident we can reach an agreement by the European Council next week. Doing so will provide businesses and citizens with the certainty they need as we prepare for exit.
“It remains a shared aim to get the withdrawal agreement agreed by October and we will continue to work closely with the commission to achieve that.”