It may be assumed from his demeanour – harassed, irritated, sucking a sweet – when he appeared before the Brexit Select Committee on Wednesday that David Davis did not want to be there. He had been told he must, by the Speaker.
He was there to explain himself. He had been rumbled. Having been directed by a Commons Opposition Day motion to release certain documents about the impact of Brexit on the economy which he had long said his department was preparing, having been ordered by the Speaker to obey that vote, and having promised to release versions that were unredacted, he had finally stopped prevaricating and given the Brexit Select Committee 850 pages in two lever arch files.
It was ridiculously insufficient and appeared to be highly redacted. It was accompanied by a letter saying that the documents the committee was expecting had never existed in the form MPs thought they did, and that he had repeatedly made this fact clear.
Committee chair Hilary Benn did not waste time (see Guardian, 6 December). Perhaps he had been told that Mr Davis had an important meeting in Brussels. He asked whether the fact that the Brexit impact assessments did not exist in the form that MPs had thought was the reason why the Minister had not handed them over.
That was correct, said Mr Davis. There were formal definitions of an impact assessment, and the work done by the Government did not fit those definitions.
Benn asked him if the Government had undertaken an assessment of the impact of Brexit. Davis said it had not, “not on a sector by sector basis.”
He was asked if it had assessed the impact on, for instance, aerospace, or agriculture. Davis admitted that it had not assessed the impact on any sector.
Wasn’t that a bit strange? Hilary Benn asked, with visible restraint.
The Secretary of State didn’t think so. The intention, when these sectoral analyses were carried out, was to help the government understand what the effect of Brexit would be. (He did not explain how that differed from making an assessment.) He added, rolling the sweet around his mouth, that he was not a fan of economic models because they had all been proven wrong.
Benn then asked him about comments he had made to a Commons committee in September, when he said detailed assessments were being carried out. Davis’s reply was illuminating, although not of the subject. He said, “Just because you are looking at the impact of something, that does not amount to an impact assessment.”
What, in that case, Benn asked him, had he been talking about when he told a committee that Theresa May would have seen “summaries of the assessments carried out”? Davis replied that he was referring to the “summary outcomes” of the reports that had been commissioned.
Seema Malhotra (Labour) took up the questioning and reminded the Minister that in September he had told a Lords committee that his department would “carry out a qualitative assessment.”
That was not the same as an impact assessment, said Davis. He said that he had been using the term “sectoral analysis.” That was different.
Stephen Timms (Labour) asked how much had been left out from the 850 pages submitted. The Minister didn’t know exactly. He didn’t think it was a lot. And, no, he did not edit the material himself.
Indeed, it turned out he had not even read any of it. He had been provided with a sample two chapters before the material was given to the committee, but he did not read them. This was because he did not want to be responsible for deciding exactly what was and was not released. He would not have had time to read 850 pages.
It was not long after this that he said he was late for his next appointment.
Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dem) asked him where the misunderstanding that there were impact assessments had come from. He told her she would have to ask other people.
Incensed and incredulous Committee members debated, after the session, whether Davis should be charged with contempt for defying the Commons motion ordering him to publish the assessments in full. Non-parliamentarians might think that that was not the half of it. He had revealed that the Government had not carried out any assessment of what effect Brexit would have on the British economy. Was this not (as Seema Malhotra tweeted) a gross dereliction of duty? And he had lied. He and his underlings had at the very least “misled” the House (Joanna Cherry, QC, SNP justice and home affairs spokesperson). Parliament does not normally forgive this.
For a start, he had only “made it clear” for the past few weeks that the assessments never existed. For fifteen months he had exerted himself to give the impression that they were a real, ongoing process. The picture started to take shape as early as July 2016, when ministers told a parliamentary committee of the need to examine the impact of Brexit on various sectors (see jackofkent.com/2017/11/the-early-history-of-the-58-brexit-sector-analyses/ .
Then, at a Lords committee in September 2016, Davis spoke of carrying out “quantitative assessments,” used the words “sectoral analysis” and said, “they are working through about 50 cross-cutting sectors.” By December, the sets of analysis had grown to “about 57”, each of which had “implications for individual parts of 85% of the economy.”
In the largely fatuous White Paper on Brexit, the outlines of the great enterprise became clearer: “We have structured our approach by five broad sectors covering the breadth of the UK economy: goods; agriculture, food and fisheries; services; financial services; and energy, transport and communication networks, as well as areas of crosscutting regulation.”
In March, Davis was telling the Commons of a “huge amount of work,” and in April promising an in-depth assessment. The assessments were in “excruciating detail.” DexEu said it would shortly be publishing the list of sectors.
The list, which does indeed cover 58 sectors, was eventually published, after pressure from MPs, six months later. It runs from aerospace to wholesale markets and investment banking, taking in agriculture, business services, defence, fisheries, higher education, medical services, nuclear, pharmaceuticals, and a great deal more on the way. It is impressive. But then, a list doesn’t have to do much.
The documents which Vince Cable says he saw, “under a procedure rivalling access to the Crown Jewels,” in the room in which the Government has placed the documents for MPs’ viewing, hardly tallies with this prospectus. They were “descriptions of the sectors, not assessments of impact,” he said, and contained nothing that was not available on Wikipedia.
This flimsiness is assumed to result from a state of panic that struck DexEu in November when it realised that the game was up, and began frantically throwing material together in the three weeks that David Davis had said he would need to “collate” the information into a convenient form. The pressure had begun to mount on 10 October, when 120 MPs signed a letter demanding the release of the “secret advice” the government was assumed to have.
The rhetoric about the analysis was immediately rowed back on and “assessment” became a taboo word, but it was far too late to correct beliefs that had been foolishly nurtured. The Opposition Day motion was passed on 1 November, but it still took an order from the Speaker to get the documents, such as they were, released, and an Urgent Question from Keir Starmer followed by another intervention from the Speaker to get Davis in front of the Brexit committee.
What on earth was the department doing before that? However, that isn’t, of course, the point. The question is, what did David Davis think he was doing? And it’s an interesting question, if one can manage to bottle one’s rage and keep it on a shelf while considering the matter. How long did he think he could keep it up? Did he really think MPs were by now so cowed that they would never ask to see this stuff? That their constituents wouldn’t? Was he relying on his luck, on everything falling apart anyway, on a royal wedding?
Or, to dig in another direction, why didn’t he do the work? Was he afraid of what the analyses would reveal? Or does he just not like work?
“Thick as mince, lazy as a toad, vain as Narcissus,” said Dominic Cummings (Vote Leave manager) of David Davis in July.
Perhaps it’s as simple as that.
The Brexit committee voted on whether to move for Davis to be held in contempt of Parliament. They voted by 11 to 8 that “in view of the fact that no impact assessments have been undertaken [my italics], the Government’s response to the resolution of 1 November has complied with the terms of that resolution.” In other words, since the assessments had never existed, Davis could not be held to be in contempt of Parliament for not publishing them.
The 11 in favour were Tories and one DUP member; the eight were all opposition MPs.
The Government went to some trouble a few months ago to ensure that government members on a Commons committee always outnumbered opposition ones (see my blog post of 10 September, The height of pavements). This is an early fruit of those labours.
Someone on the Government side is working diligently.