The government has mishandled things so badly that the content of the papers is now secondary to the chaos around their releaseby / December 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
As the satire which occasionally passes for the Brexit negotiations builds up to the fevered will-they-won’t-they climax of the December European Council summit, it is worth paying some attention to its no less farcical but somewhat more legalistic subplot: the long-running saga of the government’s sectoral “impact assessments.”
These papers supposedly examine the impact of European Union withdrawal across the British economy—from aviation to textiles, architecture to road haulage. Millions of livelihoods stand to be affected by Brexit. But the government’s entire approach to these reports, if we can call them that, invites only ridicule.
David Davis first drew attention to the reports in December 2016, when he informed the Brexit Select Committee that the department was carrying out “about 57 sets of analyses” with implications for “individual parts of 85 per cent of the economy.” In June 2017 he declared that “nearly 60” were “already done,” and in October protested that their “excruciating detail” made it unlikely that the prime minister had read them from cover to cover. There might, of course, have been a more banal reason for our famously hard-working premier not to have studied them in detail, which Davis helpfully confirmed in a letter to committee chair Hilary Benn last month. As ministerial statements go, the sentence “it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist” was admirably direct.
But while full assessments seem not to have been initially conducted, Labour seized the initiative and forced the government, through an obscure parliamentary procedure, to present the government’s research—such as it was—privately to the committee. Which, after breaking the Speaker’s initial deadline, the government finally did. Reports suggest that various Whitehall departments scrambled to complete a significant amount of work immediately prior to the papers’ submission. Subsequent rows, some of them legal, have erupted over the redactions of apparently sensitive material and the prospect and timing of the documents’ release into the public domain. At the time of writing, they have not been published for you and I to read in either redacted or unredacted form. We therefore do not know the extent to which they investigate either the velvet-soft Brexit of a Norway-style deal with added agriculture and customs union, or the rather more dramatic consequences of a Thelma and Louise-style departure without any deal at all.
“The UK no longer has leverage to lose”
The government’s shambolic handling of the reports’ publication has revealed a wealth of information before we have even glanced at their contents. The first question must be: if the assessments did not initially exist in any meaningful way, why didn’t they? As Davis himself pointed out, the sectors covered a huge majority of the UK’s economy. We might have expected an analysis of their Brexit exposure to constitute the most basic due diligence and to fundamentally direct the UK’s approach. Did ministers really consider a comprehensive and forensic examination of the economy’s vulnerability to the government’s policies to be an optional, and indeed forgone, luxury in their Brexit package? Such complacency, if so, would represent a historic (and unforgivable) dereliction of duty.
If, on the other hand, the assessments broadly have existed for many months, we can only infer that the government is being dragged kicking and screaming to the printing presses because they reveal unpalatable truths. DExEU’s protest that publication might “undermine… our negotiating strategy” may be truer than it knows. If full reports illuminate the deficiency of the government’s Brexit preparation and the shabbiness of its research, then we will indeed lose any remaining scraps of credibility in Brussels.
Conversely, if they expose the full bleakness of Brexit, they will simply confirm what the EU already knows. The truth is that the EU is fully aware of Brexit’s potential calamity, and we no longer have leverage to lose. Indeed, no amount of poor economic projection could harm a negotiating position which still does not exist.
If, as seems likely, the government did not prepare an accurate and detailed set of analyses, that is because it must remain in denial about Brexit in order to deliver it. If ministers confront the blunt reality of the economic devastation which awaits, they will have to say that it doesn’t matter. Brexit means Brexit, no matter the cost to people’s lives. The government does not seek to conceal this truth from the EU, but from the British people.
Brexit would damage the country regardless of who was delivering it; but this government’s naked, frantic and likely terminal chaos guarantees the disaster. Voters must discover exactly what ministers have in store for us, and so the reports must of course be published; but the preposterous tale of their existence and publication already tells us most of what we need to know.
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