The way Brexit has been handled is staggering. It is an utter dereliction of duty
This was the week the reality of Brexit hit home. Now it is time for the government to rethink its position, writes Seema Malhotra
This week has proven to be the great unravelling of the government’s Brexit promises, when fantasy met reality and they were left stuck between a rock and a hard border. It’s a week in which the clock is ticking, not only in Brexit negotiations but likely the premiership of Theresa May.
The Tory tug of war is set to enter a critical few days. May is going to have to make a decision this week on the Irish question that both honours the government’s responsibility as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and manages the politics of her colleagues. This is potentially the most critical week in the negotiations and the hard Brexiteers know it.
What happens will set the tone and direction for a hard or softer Brexit – a more managed and orderly move to transition on similar arrangements to current terms, or a pulling of the plug that risks our prosperity for a generation. A hard Brexit in reality would mean a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Every expert or politician who understands the reality knows this isn’t a circle that can be squared, but a hard choice to be made.
Against this Three Ring Circus backdrop, if May hoped it couldn’t get worse, it did. Philip Hammond let slip to the Treasury Select Committee that the Cabinet has not yet had a full discussion about the “end state”. It’s a great example of knocking down a house without any idea of what you plan to build in its place – a classic route to years of indecision and the worst of both worlds.
That wasn’t the biggest omission of gross incompetence this week, that award goes to the Brexit Secretary. Appearing in front of the Brexit Select Committee, we witnessed David Davis’s very own Houdini act with the Brexit impact assessments. Davis may have forgotten what he has told Parliament before but thankfully there is no “blessed sponge of amnesia” that wipes the record from Hansard.
A year ago, we were told that the government is about to begin quantitative analysis as soon as the DexEU team grows, and that research is being undertaken into nearly 60 sectors of the economy. In February, Davis introduced the government’s White Paper saying: “We continue to analyse the impact of our exit across the breadth of the UK economy, covering more than 50 sectors – I think it was 58 at the last count – to shape our negotiating position.”
On the Andrew Marr Show in June he confirmed they’d been completed. In September, in his department’s FoI response to me, he said they couldn’t be shared. In October, he said the Prime Minister had seen them and they were in excruciating detail. In November, we heard they didn’t exist.
The Select Committee voted by 11-8 that Davis had met the terms of the motion in Parliament to release the assessments on what is effectively a technical point. They couldn’t hand over impact assessments if they didn’t have any. But concerns have now been expressed as to why there has been such inconsistency in what has been said to Parliament over the course of the last year and whether he has complied with the spirit of the motion or misled Parliament. The substantive and underlying key question is what the government has. It’s a shambles.
The hard Brexiteers wanted the country to believe we could leave the EU while keeping all of the benefits without a single consequence. But reality is the most sobering of tonics. The referendum promises of a trade deal with the EU, spoken of as the “easiest in human history”, have given way to an acceptance that transitional arrangements at the very best will be needed post-March 2019. The first stage on negotiations on the divorce bill was meant to be the “row of the summer”. The government eventually conceded that we must pay to meet our obligations – the initial sum the EU had asked for, but half a year down the road. Theresa May has drawn and redrawn her red lines for the ECJ, which now look as likely as the promises made to the NHS on the Red Bus. The economy was destined to flourish and is now floundering at the bottom of the G7 table, after weakest economic growth forecast since 1983.
Let us not forget this is still Stage One of the talks and the clock is well and truly ticking. The reality for us is that it’s not only a ticking clock but a ticking time bomb on our country’s social cohesion and a generation of economic prosperity.
The way the Conservatives have handled Brexit – led by ideology, not careful evidence and deliberation – is staggering and an utter dereliction of duty.
Now Brexit is nearing our shores, reality has hit home and it is time for the government to rethink its position before it unravels the negotiations and our economy is hit hard – with businesses and families paying the price.
Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston and a member of the Brexit Select Committee