The government has mishandled things so badly that the content of the papers is now secondary to the chaos around their releaseby Jonathan Lis / 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.