Expert View

Take back control is becoming a sick joke

by David Hannay | 02.11.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Here we go again. Just one year ago the government was fighting, desperately but in the end unavailingly, to resist coming to parliament for authority to trigger Article 50. Yesterday they were still resisting, equally unavailingly, a request from parliament to make available the 58 sectoral impact assessments on the effect of Brexit on the economy which the Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu) has compiled. Today, Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, accepted that the government would release the information, though she left open exactly how and when this would happen.

There really does seem to be no limit to the lengths the government will go in order to cut parliament out of any meaningful oversight and scrutiny role in the Brexit negotiations. Take back control is becoming a sick joke.

Just look at the government’s arguments for their obduracy over revealing the contents of the 58 impact assessments. High up the absurdity index comes the need to give Dexeu a “safe space” in which to conduct the negotiations. Leave aside the infelicity of using a phrase which is currently being used as an excuse for limiting academic freedom and freedom of speech at our universities. That argument really amounts to a claim by the government to be spared from any accountability for negotiations which, in their own estimation, are the most consequential for Britain in living memory.

And then there is the slightly more plausible claim that publication of the assessments would damage the government’s negotiating position. Does that really hold water? Hardly. For one thing, our EU 27 partners are unlikely to be in the dark about the content of the assessments. After all, many of the companies which contributed to them are French, German, Dutch or other EU member state businesses. And the EU 27 have well staffed embassies here who will be reporting assiduously on all these matters.

Why then is such a fuss being made over publication of assessments which, apparently, neither the prime minister nor David Davis nor his junior ministers have actually read in their entirety? Not, one assumes, because they validate the foreign secretary’s ineffable claim that any outcome to the negotiations, including leaving without a deal, would be “perfectly OK”.

More likely because they show just how damaging leaving without a deal would be, and would thus strengthen the case for once and for all killing off the mantra of no deal being better than a bad deal. Doing that would of course greatly upset those of the government’s supporters who regard that as their preferred option.

Far better that both sides should from now on negotiate with the absolute determination to get a deal, recognising that there would be damaging consequences for both sides if agreement was not reached – admittedly worse ones for us than for the EU 27.

Let us hope therefore that the government will now bow to the inevitable and give parliament the assessments – in their entirety and not just summaries and not redacted. And while they are about it, it would be really helpful if they would also tell parliament what legal advice they have received on the reversibility of the Article 50 notification.

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A sentence about Andrea Leadsom accepting that the government would publish the studies was added shortly after publication.

Edited by Hugo Dixon