Nobody said Brexit was going to be easy, did they? It turns out that even talking about how difficult Brexit is going to be is pretty tricky, and the person feeling that most keenly is David Davis. Today the Brexit Secretary came under fire from all parts of the House of Commons for the heavy editing of some impact assessments on Brexit which it wasn’t entirely clear had ever actually been written in a form long enough for them to be edited down. Last year, Davis told MPs that ‘we’ve carried out or are in the midst of carrying out about 57, I think, sectoral analyses, each of which has implications for individual parts of 85 per cent of the economy, and some of those are still to be concluded.’
This week, though, when Davis’s department handed over this analysis to the Brexit Select Committee, as demanded by MPs in an Opposition Day vote, it turned out that ‘about 57’ sectoral analyses were somewhat shorter than expected, even when allowing for redactions of market sensitive information. MPs aren’t just cross about that, though: in the Chamber today there were plenty of Conservative MPs who are in favour of Brexit but angry about the way their government colleagues are treating Parliament.
There are two problems here, and one follows from the other. The first is that these ‘analyses’ are patchy at best. I understand that the departments who had offered more detailed assessments, such as the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department, also happened to be the ones whose assessments were the most unpalatable. The second problem is that the government is already trying to evade parliamentary scrutiny as often as it can and in as egregious a fashion as it thinks it can manage, and patchy and dismal impact assessments falls neatly into the category of things you wouldn’t want parliament to scrutinise too closely.
But when you manage to upset people who aren’t arguing about the principle of Brexit but the principle of respecting Parliament, then it’s clear you’ve crossed a line, and that’s what today’s row in the House of Commons was really about.
So how can Davis and his ministerial colleagues calm the row? Well, Brexit Committee chair Hilary Benn has summoned the minister to appear before the committee ‘very speedily indeed’, while John Bercow told the Chamber that ‘when it is suggested that that meeting should be soon, it means soon – it does not mean weeks hence, it means very soon indeed’. Robin Walker, who was responding on behalf of the government to Keir Starmer’s urgent question on the assessment(s), did suggest that ministers could table a new motion which would amend the original vote, which the government hadn’t actually opposed at the time. This would be one way of removing the possibility of Davis being found in contempt of the House.
Of course, what might have been easier would have been if the government had been clear all along about what it was working on in terms of impact assessments after the referendum, and in what format those would be made available. Instead, it has dragged out the row about reports which may not be particularly enlightening anyway over months, suggesting all the while that within them lurk some true horrors, when in fact no-one had actually got around to writing those horrors down.