David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.
The government’s policy is Brexit at any cost. This cat came out of the bag late on Monday evening when the House of Lords was giving its approval to the Article 50 bill. George Bridges, the Brexit minister in the Lords, said: “It is very hard to see what meaningful vote there could be if there had been no deal at all. In the absence of an agreement, I have no doubt there would be further statements to this house. However we are leaving the European Union either through the deal or without a deal.”
So, there you have it. The prime minister not only intends to walk away from the negotiations without a deal if she believes that only a bad deal is on offer, which is quite legitimate; but she has a “get out of jail free” card up her sleeve which will exempt the government from any meaningful process of parliamentary scrutiny and approval if she does so.
The procedure for handling ministerial statements such as those referred to provides for 20 minutes of frontbench Q&A and 20 minutes for backbenchers. No debate allowed. No votes.
As if that is not bad enough, the government is at sixes and sevens within its own ranks as to the consequences of leaving without a deal. “Cliff-edge” says Theresa May; “perfectly OK” says the foreign secretary. Unless Boris Johnson believes that he can defy the laws of gravity, that means that he contests the prime minister’s “cliff-edge” analysis.
The rest of us are simply left with no way of telling which one is right since the government is stubbornly refusing to publish any impact assessments. And yet to do so for the eventuality of leaving without a deal is reasonably straightforward.
For trade it would mean applying World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules to our imports from the EU and for having the same rules applied to our exports to them. We know what those rules are because we are already applying them every day of the week to the imports from any third country which does not have a preferential trade agreement with the EU – which is why so many US and Japanese companies are investing in the UK to avoid them.
So why not share some analysis with parliament and the public? After all, it does not mean giving away any negotiating secrets. Perhaps it is just too alarming.
It really does not make sense to be opening these extraordinarily important negotiations without any idea at all of the consequences of failing to get a deal and without any process of parliamentary handling being established for dealing with that eventuality. Nature abhors a vacuum. So do not expect this one to remain unfilled for very long. Nor should it be.
Edited by Hugo Dixon