A string of Tory and Labour MPs have warned David Davis, the Brexit secretary, that businesses and financial markets are being spooked by his lack of a plan for leaving the EU.
Claire Perry, a Conservative former minister, said on Wednesday she was extremely concerned about the state of the pound and accused Davis of putting “narrow ideology” ahead of the national interest, while Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, said no foreign companies would invest until there was more clarity about the UK’s future relationship with the outside world.
Chris Philp, a Tory backbencher, urged the Brexit secretary to reveal more details, saying there was a “danger some [businesses] may take decisions in the next two or three months” to pre-emptively scale back investment and move jobs. And the serial rebel Anna Soubry, a former business minister who attended cabinet, demanded a yes or no answer as to whether the UK would be in the single market.
The MPs raised their concerns during a Labour-led debate in the House of Commons on the need for greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process of leaving the EU before article 50 is triggered by the end of March.
Davis said it was “not black or white” whether the UK would stay in the single market and parliament could not expect to be given every detail of Brexit plans.
The government had a mandate to get the best possible deal, he said, but insisted he could go no further than talking about overarching aims because revealing the UK’s top priority would prove “extremely expensive”.
Those aims, he said, were: “Bringing back control of laws to parliament, bringing back control over decisions of immigration to the UK, maintaining the strong security cooperation that we have with the European Union, and establishing the freest possible market in goods and services with the European Union and the rest of the world.”
He also hit out at businesses and countries who were creating a “Brexit blame festival” which, he said, was making employees unnecessarily nervous about the consequences of leaving the EU.
The debate was led by Keir Starmer, who said: “It’s frankly astonishing that the government proposes to devise the negotiating terms of our exit from the EU, then to negotiate and then to reach a deal without a vote in this house.
“I have accepted, I’ve stood here and accepted, there’s a mandate for exit. There is no mandate for the terms. It has never been put to the country. It has not even been put to the secretary of state’s political party and it has not been put to this house. Where is the mandate on the terms?”
The government accepted Labour’s motion in favour of “proper scrutiny”, with a minor amendment about protecting its negotiating aims, but has not conceded that there needs to be a vote of MPs on the strategy.
Davis said MPs must not be allowed to veto the decision to leave the EU but would be given a series of debates before it happens. He also hinted that more details could be revealed at a later date on the proposed form of Brexit for MPs to discuss.
“I’ve asked the chief whip through usual channels for a series of debates so that the house can air its views,” he said. “It would be very surprising if we had those debates without presenting to them something to debate.”
Davis was supported by a raft of longstanding Eurosceptic backbenchers, such as Bill Cash, Peter Bone and Bernard Jenkin, and some Tory MPs were satisfied with the government’s concession that there would be a series of debates.
However, others continued to press for a formal vote. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said major treaty change should be approved by the Commons by convention, not just prerogative powers. He said his duty to his constituents transcended his duty to his party on the matter, accounting for his criticism of his own government.
Grieve was backed up by Clarke, who said it was essential to have both more clarity about what the government was planning and a vote on the strategy to be pursued.
“The pound has devalued to an extent that would have caused a political crisis 30 years ago,” he said. “Nobody is going to invest in this country until there is some clarity about our relationship with the outside the world.”
Perry made an intervention in favour of the single market, telling Starmer: “I would like to reassure you … that there are many of us on the government benches who will do all we can to preserve the benefits of access to the single market for our local constituents.”
Nicky Morgan, the Conservative former education secretary, said she resented the implication from newspapers, ministers and “briefers and spinners at the heart of this government” that she was trying to block Brexit, and pledged to work even harder at holding the government to account over its role in leaving the EU.
She said she was “deeply concerned” that the cabinet had not been consulted on when article 50 would be triggered and spoke of her “heartbreak” that one of her constituents would find it difficult to carry on living in the UK as an EU citizen.
Soubry said the UK was in difficult and dangerous times, and that MPs had to be “brave and true to what we believe in”, not bow to calls for lower immigration if they did not agree with that.
She called for the government to abandon its target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. “We cannot keep it. We know the reality. People come here to work and, in simple terms, who is going to do the jobs of the people who come here?” Soubry asked. “We should be making it clear we are open to business and open to people, as we always have been, because they contribute to this country not just in economic terms but in cultural terms.”
Soubry spoke of a small UK firm that was in danger of going under, and others that had told her EU workers were returning to their countries of origin.
“We should be holding our heads in shame that this is a feeling that people have,” she said.