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David Davis’s words are coming back to haunt him

6 December 2017

11:41 AM

6 December 2017

11:41 AM

Not for the first time, David Davis’s words came back to haunt him as he was quizzed on Brexit today. The Brexit secretary, who is having something of a tough week in a year of tough weeks, told MPs that no detailed sector-by-sector analysis of what the impact of leaving the European Union would be had been carried out. He said this morning that:

‘The usefulness of such a detailed impact assessment is near zero and given how we were stretching our resources to get to where we were at the time, it was not a sensible use of resources.’

So far, so simple. The only problem? As Hilary Benn was all too keen to point out, Davis has not always taken this line. Benn picked up on comments Davis made to the Foreign Affairs Committee on September 13th last year. On that occasion, Davis said:

‘There is the sectoral analysis. They are working through about 50 cross-cutting sectors, what is going to happen to them.’

It wasn’t only Davis that appeared to refer to analysis that didn’t exist though. Lord Bridges, who served as parliamentary under-secretary of state in Davis’ department, was at it too a month later, saying that:

‘We have segmented the UK economy into roughly 100 production sectors. We have looked at these to understand the size and contribution each makes to the economy, and used that to support our analysis of the impact on them of Brexit.’

Benn had a point when he told Davis that it sounded like the same impact assessment that didn’t exist, did in fact exist. Davis said the misunderstanding could be explained by the fact that when those comments were made, his department was in its infancy and had not yet settled on a plan of action of what type of analysis it would actually undertake.

But this seems hard to buy into given that, some months later, in December 2016, Davis said that the government was ‘in the midst of carrying out about 57 sets of analyses’ of the impact of Brexit on sectors which accounted for 85 per cent of the economy. Of course, one explanation could be that, even six months after the referendum, the Brexit department remained in a state of flux. But even though it would help him out of a hole, Davis is understandably unlikely to admit that.

Still clutching at straws – and even more confusingly – Davis then went on to say that it would be wrong to conclude that the use of the word ‘impact’ meant that an impact assessment had taken place. Instead what had happened, he said, was that assessments had been undertaken on the effects of different policies, but this did not amount to an impact assessment:

‘The government, of course, is looking at the effect of the potential policy but it hasn’t written an impact assessment’.

Still confused? You’re not alone. Davis is getting – deservedly – plenty of stick for his evasiveness on supposedly non-existent impact assessments. Yet while Davis’ critics are demanding their pound of flesh, the Brexit secretary does have a good point on how useful those impact assessments would actually be, even if they did exist (which of course they don’t).

Remember the Treasury’s infamous models of what would happen to the UK economy in the wake of the referendum? Here’s the warning still on the government’s website telling us that:

‘Britain’s economy would be tipped into a year-long recession, with at least 500,000 jobs lost and GDP around 3.6% lower, following a vote to leave the EU’.

Of course, this isn’t to say that all economic assessments are quite as wrong as this one was, but it’s hard to disagree with Davis when he told the committee today that:

‘I’m not a fan of economic models because they have all proven wrong. when you have a paradigm change (such as in 2008), all the models were wrong’

So in his defence, Davis does have a point on the use of impact assessments. But the problem for Davis is that this is no longer really an issue about the actual assessments, so much as it is about how open the government is being with Parliament. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion here that Davis has turned a political molehill into a mountain and that he only has himself to blame for the impact assessment debacle.


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