JAMES BALL asks whether we should expect more of a cabinet minister than an 11-year-old at primary school.
Should we expect more of a cabinet minister, or an 11-year-old at primary school? This is maybe not a question we expect to ask ourselves, but when faced with the reality of David Davis’s tenure at the Department for Exiting the European Union it’s one that’s become excruciatingly difficult to answer.
The Brexit secretary is certainly content to set himself a low bar. Speaking on LBC last Monday, Davis said he didn’t need to be ‘all that clever’ or ‘know that much’ to be the responsible secretary of state for the most complex series of negotiations in UK living memory.
Instead, Davis argued, all that was needed to do his job was ‘to be calm’ – a sentence that suggests his job could just as easily be filled by a cuddly toy in a suit. To this stringent standard Davis has set himself, we can add just one more requirement, and this one’s a legal one: he has a legal responsibility to tell the truth to parliament.
Any MP speaking in the Commons chamber is required to speak truthfully, as is any witness giving evidence to a parliamentary committee. The rules around what happens if you don’t are fairly archaic – just like everything else about parliament – but in theory can result in being censured, being expelled as an MP, or even being jailed.
Just ‘disrespecting’ parliament can be enough to get you expelled: in 1947 a Labour MP was thrown out of parliament for writing a media article accusing his colleagues of drunkenness and taking payment in exchange for information.
So how does Davis fare against the low bar of staying calm and trying not to say anything untrue? Not well. His main area of failure comes around his ever-changing story on reports about the effect of Brexit on 58 different sectors of the UK economy.
Last December, Davis told the Brexit select committee the government was carrying out ‘about 57 sets of analyses’, while another of his ministers in May repeated the government had ‘conducted analysis of over 50 sectors of the economy’. In October, Davis was in front of the committee again.
Labour MP Seema Malhotra noted Davis had previously stated ‘that DExEU was carrying out 57 sets of sectoral analysis’ on the impact of Brexit, then asked Davis whether Theresa May had seen those ‘impact assessments’ or not.
Davis’s response was clear. ‘She will know the summary outcomes of them,’ he said. ‘She will not necessarily have read every single one. They are in excruciating detail.’
Such an answer may give the reader the impression that not only has the government done some work to assess what the effects of Brexit could be, but also that it has been incredibly detailed.
Less than two weeks after his committee appearance, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion calling for the publication of the 58 excruciating documents Davis had told them about. During it, a minister working for Davis was already backpedalling. ‘There has been some… it is not a series of 58 economic impact assessments,’ Robin Walker told the House.
Two days later, Davis wrote in a letter ‘it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist’, before noting that there may be commercially sensitive documents in these non-existent documents that could require them to be redacted.
Eventually, Davis handed over two ring binders with 850 pages – about 17 pages per sector – of analysis, described by the MPs who have read it as shallow, superficial and lacking in any assessment of different Brexit scenarios.
By this stage, Davis was telling the committee that the ‘usefulness of such a detailed impact assessment is near zero’ and ‘it was not a sensible use of resources’. Not only that, but he wanted the MPs to know that he hasn’t even bothered to read what has been produced. ‘I took the view that I wanted to be able to say that I did not read them,’ he said.
In schoolboy terms, over the course of a year Davis’s excuse has shifted. It has shifted from ‘I’ve done the homework but left it at home’ to ‘I’ve done so much work on the homework that I haven’t finished it yet’, to ‘the homework is too sensitive for you to see it’, to ‘the dog’s eaten it’.
Davis’s most recent excuse – who knows if it will be his final one – amounts to ‘not only have I not done the homework, but it would have been wrong of me to do the homework. Here are some notes I borrowed from someone else, but I haven’t read them. Oh, and the dog’s dead’.
Davis’s ever-shifting tale leaves us with two possibilities, both disturbing. The first is that Davis is not telling the truth now, and the government does somewhere have detailed work on the impact of Brexit, which it has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep secret.
The other possibility is that the government has simply not done the work of carrying out impact assessments on the biggest political change of our lifetimes.
Over the last year, the government has produced detailed impact assessments on its ‘Tourism Action Plan’, on ‘noise and vibration on HS2’ and on ‘driving test changes’, among dozens of other policies. If they’re important enough to do this work on, why isn’t Brexit?
Any school child who’d turned in the kind of performance Davis had over the last year would be facing weeks of detention, if not expulsion. Do we hold our cabinet ministers to a lower standard than that?