The New European’s editor-at-large on the nuts and bolts of a Brexit public inquiry.
I have considerable experience of public inquiries. As a journalist covering them; think Franks and the Falklands. As a government official involved in establishing them, such as the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings. As a witness having to appear at them. Hutton. Leveson. Chilcot.
Even today I can’t hear the first and third of those names without a certain level of anxiety – especially Hutton. Had the judge not found as he did (thank heavens he got to the truth not the media lies that led us to the tragedy of David Kelly’s death in the first place) it would have led not just to my demise but more importantly that of the government.
At all of then, the knowledge that everything you ever said or did, and in my case at Hutton everything you thought too – he demanded my personal diaries – was an inevitable driver of anxiety. A stray word, an ill-advised email, a lapse of judgement when tired that might be exposed to the brutal light of courtroom analysis, being followed around the world. ‘Feeling under pressure’ doesn’t come close.
The higher the stakes, the greater the pressure. When it comes to the inevitable public inquiry into Brexit, an issue on which the stakes amount to the economic, political, diplomatic and cultural future of one of the greatest countries on earth, the pressure on all called to give evidence will be enormous.
David Cameron, who called the referendum and lost. Theresa May and her entire cabinet, ministers galore who have come and gone, civil servants and diplomats, the officials and outside companies drawn into the waste of four billion pounds on planning for a no-deal that we now learn was never going to happen as part of a ploy that was never believed by the other side.
The stance of the opposition, and of the DUP, will also come under scrutiny, given May’s disastrous election gamble produced the nightmare political arithmetic of a hung parliament. As I said to one of the Labour team called into talks with May, ‘make sure you keep a full note and get it written up immediately. One day it will be reviewed by a judge’.
People might be sick to death of hearing about Brexit day after day on the news. Believe me, when the inquiry comes you will be hearing about it for years more. And even if Brexit doesn’t go ahead, so much has happened already to damage our standing worldwide, so much money frittered, so many mistakes made, there will still have to be a major public inquiry into how we got here.
The inquiry’s workload will be vast. A future government will have to select the right chairman and supporting team, and develop a draft Terms of Reference to cover what happened, why it happened, who is to blame, and what can be learned to help prevent such a catastrophe happening again; this would in and of itself, take weeks, maybe months.
In addition to calling ministers and civil servants past and present, those responsible for the referendum campaigns on both sides will have to appear – no arrogant ducking for Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings this time – and so will the representatives of social media companies, and those who failed to police electoral law, all testifying under oath in accordance with the Inquiries Act 2005.
Though David Cameron set the whole thing off, Theresa May’s will be the evidence sessions everyone will want to see. Everywhere. This national humiliation is currently getting international coverage on a daily basis as the world watches in wonder at just how badly Brexit is going even before we leave. So much of what has gone wrong has been down to her, her style, her personality, her refusal ever to imagine she might not have the right approach, even as everyone else seems to think otherwise.
What advice was she given on taking office? How were those famous red lines laid down? Why were the public, cabinet, parliament, the devolved administrations, locked out?
The civil service has been much maligned by Brexit ministers, MPs and media. It is scandalous that May has not stood up for them against attack. But in that atmosphere I feel sure civil servants have been ensuring advice has been carefully recorded for the moment when it sees the light of the day.
Thousands of documents previously unseen will be subpoenaed in accordance with a statutory inquiry. They will build to form the biggest question of all: ‘Why, given all you knew about the damage being done, did you proceed in the way you did?’
Some documents are likely to come under more scrutiny than others. Like the 14-page (selectively) leaked paper written by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, who once worked for me and who I know is good at committing thought to paper and can, unlike most of the cabinet, see beyond the next headline or BBC two-way.
His note set out concerns, should the UK leave the EU without a deal. It included how British troops in Bosnia would temporarily need to come under Nato command; indicated the prospect of a recession ‘more harmful’ than the 2008 crisis; the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland; and how food prices would increase by up to 10%.
There will be more, much more, that will leave us gasping in wonder that a prime minister and a government could wilfully drive the country towards a cliff edge in the way they have. I for one will be fascinated to see what advice was sent to May, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, David Davis as Brexit secretary in the ‘have cake and eat it’ phase, when their strategy seemed to consist of shouting louder as a way of making the foreigners understand that Brexit having been won by false promises, the EU should help us to make the falsities come true.
So, given that a future public inquiry into this national crisis is likely to take years, how ludicrous is it that the process to which this inquiry would relate is now being rushed through by the prime minister in a matter of days and weeks?
How ludicrous is it that failure to meet a self-imposed deadline of March 29, led to a new one of April 12, then another of June 30, which had already been rejected by the EU. ‘Failure is an opportunity to begin again but more intelligently,’ Henry Ford said. This is not university coursework or a dental appointment we are talking about. It is the dismantling of a social, economic and political union developed over 40 years, and it is being done with a wilful mix of incompetence, lack of historical perspective, and disregard for fact. Moments in history are separated by chapters, not commas. This government operates in commas not chapters. This moment needs a chapter, not a comma.
Anything other than a long extension with the express intent of reaching a credible, deliverable deal, is unacceptable. The responsibility to future generations is far too great for this to be rushed.
It would be unconscionable for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to exclude the principle which has twice topped the votes of MPs – namely putting any deal to the people in a confirmatory and legally binding public ballot or People’s Vote.
We must hope that our civil servants have started to explore the process of looking at how a public vote would work, including timetabling and the necessary paving legislation.
A People’s Vote isn’t a policy option in this national Brexit crisis, it is a pragmatic process that can solve it. Normal procedures have broken down and we are facing a situation without precedent.
The late Jeremy Heywood, one of the finest civil servants I ever worked with, who became a good friend, described Brexit as ‘the most complex challenge the civil service has faced in our peacetime history’. I would go further. It is the most complex challenge our country has faced in our peacetime history.
It is not therefore a time for haste, or political ploys like the one May tried to pull on Jeremy Corbyn. It is a time for clarity and rebuilding confidence in our democracy.
It is time to let the people decide whether, on the basis of what we now know, they wish to proceed with a Brexit deal, or whether they would rather stay in the EU – so our country can move on and begin the healing.
If this madness goes ahead without such a confirmatory ballot of the people, why we didn’t have one will be another of the big questions the inquiry will have to answer.