It was Yogi Berra, the great American philosopher, who once said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you may end up someplace else”. On the 23 June 2016, the British people (well, 52% of those who participated in the referendum), decided they wanted the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The answer to the infamous ‘In or Out’ was out, but that’s all that the ballot paper allowed them to address. It is important to understand that the very term ‘Brexit’ refers to the hypothetical withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and until the formal process is completed in March 2019, there is no one that knows what this means. It is however a provocative term that gets the people going.
Very much like a group of friends who have agreed to have a night out, inevitably, someone needs to take charge and decide what the outing might entail, where the group will be going to, and when. With regards to Brexit, the referendum question’s lack of precise detail on the exact terms on which the UK will exit the European Union means it has become the government’s duty to set out clear objectives of their exit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU Nations. These include important issues such as the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa, the border with Ireland, our place in the single market, and so much more. The reality of the situation is that Theresa May’s government has been incredibly vague on what the country’s outing will entail, and are more than content to make it up as they go along.
Theresa May has offered quite pathetic platitudes of “Brexit means Brexit”, and subsequently, her desire for a “red, white and blue Brexit”, worthier of an Art Attack host rather than the Prime Minister of a country who is at such a critical juncture in its long history. This is particularly disappointing from the leader of a party who prides itself at every opportunity as the only one capable of delivering ‘strong and stable’ government. Quite shockingly, the foreign minister Phillip Hammond recently admitted that the cabinet has not even discussed what a preferred “end state position” for the UK after Brexit will be. This is akin to our aforementioned group of friends all agreeing to go on a night out, only to meet up with one another and discover that nobody had a clue where they were going.
The truth is, the government does not want scrutiny into their plans (or lack thereof) for Brexit, because they are aware of how poorly it will reflect on themselves, serving as an indictment of their lack of nous on the issue. David Davis, the Minister for exiting the European Union, has claimed in the last 18 months that there had been 58 ‘extensive and thorough’ analyses of the impact of Brexit on around 85% of the economy, both at a national and regional level. The analyses supposedly dealt with the impact of Brexit on different sectors of the economy, and were to be completed before the government formulated its Brexit policy, or strategy. This all sounded perfectly reasonable, until the government decided that to publish these analyses, that is, to let the people who voted for Brexit see its potential effect on their everyday lives, would undermine the government’s position in its negotiations with the European Union. This is quite perplexing, as the European Commission (the political arm of the EU) have taken the step of publishing its negotiating documents with the United Kingdom, ‘as part of its approach to transparency’.
David Davis himself has been critical of previous governments who have lacked transparency in their processes of making important decisions affecting the country. He wrote in the aftermath of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq War that Tony Blair’s sofa government meant that his decisions were not subjected to Cabinet scrutiny, and had undermined the whole structure of government which was designed to prevent such executive overreach. As a result, the process for deciding to go to war was ‘flawed’. Ironically, he is well on his way to making decisions on the terms of Brexit by a similarly flawed process.
On 1 November, the House of Commons passed a motion to release Brexit impact assessments to the Brexit Committee of MPs, a cross-party group of MPs set up to examine the administration and policy of the Department for Exiting the European Union. During the Commons debate, Ama Soubry MP elocuted the sentiments of much of the public on the lackadaisical effort of the government to take responsibility for Brexit negotiations, stating “You’ve won, you’re in charge of this, now you have to face up to the responsibility of delivering a Brexit that works for everybody in this country and for generations to come.”
David Davis then somehow managed to make his department, and government appear even more incompetent when he claimed that there was no ‘economic impact assessment’ of the 58 he had previously led the public to believe existed. Instead, the government had produced sectoral analysis of different industries, not a forecast of what would happen when the UK leaves the EU. According to him, economic impact assessments would be virtually useless given the scale of change Brexit is likely to cause on each industry, and insisted that this was not the ‘extraordinary admission’ that Hilary Benn MP pointed out it was.
One is inclined to suspect that the government is behaving in this manner because these assessments may contain such a negative forecast for the British economy in the aftermath of Brexit, that if made public, would in the words of Soubry, “prick this golden bubble… of the promised land of Brexit.
The alternative, that David Davis was in contempt of Parliament by lying about the number of quality of the sector reports was rejected by a vote amongst the Standing Committee, with ten Conservative MPs and one DUP MP voted that Davis was not in contempt of parliament, and Eight opposition MPs voting against.
An adage similar to Yogi Berra’s observation is that “failing to plan is planning to fail”, and the government’s conduct so far with relation to negotiations has shown a complete disregard both for the complexities of Brexit itself, and the need for transparency with the public. The people expressed a desire to leave the European Union, but the government 18 months later is still not close to understanding how we can leave, and where it wishes to take us to.