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JOHN KAMPFNER: How will an inquiry judge Brexit’s major players?

Unlike in the 1995 film 'The Usual Suspects', there may be no single mastermind behind the Brexit shambles. Pictures: Getty Images - Credit: Archant

What an inquiry into the Brexit fiasco might look like.

Who is to blame? The term, made famous by Alexander Herzen’s novel of the 1840s and repeated by Lenin, has become synonymous with Soviet and Russian political discourse. Find the guilty men (pretty much all men in those days), round them up… and you know what to do then.

The discourse over Brexit is only marginally less extreme. Once we have finally settled on an outcome, and an outcome of one sort has, in the end, to come, our political class (an oxymoron if ever there was one) will want to know what went wrong and whodunnit.

The public, whichever way they voted, will be even more eager to know, particularly when they see how much they will have suffered economically from the mayhem. On one point everyone seems to converge: this is an object lesson in failure. It will be taught in history books as the great Brexit national collapse. As for the former head of the civil service, Bob (Lord) Kerslake, has put it, an enquiry is needed into the ‘biggest humiliation since Suez’. Some might argue it was worse than that.

An inquiry there surely will be, but what type is harder to tell. There are myriad variants, and those with something to hide, who seek to emerge relatively unscathed will want to ensure it is set up to cause least harm. That’s dozens, perhaps hundreds of people then, guaranteeing a bun fight just to get it going.

It is never easy. Even before it got going, the enquiry into the Grenfell tragedy incurred the wrath of many survivors. The Saville enquiry into Bloody Sunday was regarded as meticulous (taking six years to hear evidence and another six to publish and costing a staggering £200 million, it would be surprising if it wasn’t), but it has left many feeling even more aggrieved.

Nearly 50 years on from the day when soldiers from the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 innocent civilians in Derry, one solitary and lowly lance corporal is to be prosecuted. As for the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, that is on its fourth chairman since being established in 2014.

The closest parallel to the Brexit farrago is Iraq. That had three investigations. The Hutton inquiry in 2003 was widely (and correctly) denounced as a whitewash, focusing on errors in BBC reporting, while exonerating the government from playing fast and loose with the truth. Lord Butler’s review of weapons of mass destruction a year later (to which I gave evidence) was also brief. It was of a much higher quality, but the former cabinet secretary allowed himself to be skewered when, in presenting his report to the media, he found himself exonerating Tony Blair in response to a question.

The most apposite comparison is the Chilcot report. This provided the ‘last word’ on Iraq. Its conclusions were coruscating. Trouble was, it was so late that by then everyone had moved on. The need for thoroughness was in conflict with the equally pressing need for timeliness. Set up by Gordon Brown, it reported only in 2016 – 13 years after the war. The panel reviewed 150,000 documents. The final version contained 2.6 million words (four times the length of War and Peace, spanning 12 volumes plus a summary.

More than 150 witnesses gave evidence and more than 130 sessions of oral evidence were held. It was initially intended to take no longer than two years. It took almost seven, longer than British troops were on Iraqi soil.

It was held back when one of its five-person panel fell ill and died. But most of the reasons for its delay were the result of deliberate interference from Whitehall. Officials and ministers cited official secrets concerns when they were really trying to protect themselves from political embarrassment. They demanded the right to prepare their responses, in advance of publication, using that ruse to apply further brakes.

Expect the same to apply with Brexit. Expect all the guilty men and women (and there will be no shortage of women in this category, denoting progress of sorts) to do everything in their power to stymie any investigation. They are already getting their retaliation in first – politicians suggesting that civil servants are re-writing the official record to distance themselves from decisions.

The impediments will begin immediately. Who would chair it? Who would sit on it? That might be relatively straightforward – a judge or senior bod of no known public statement on the matter, and a panel equally representative. Then comes the remit, and that’s where the trouble begins.

Where do you begin? With the conduct of the referendum? Or the conduct of the pre-referendum negotiations? That was David Cameron kidding himself (and everyone else) that his Etonian noblesse oblige would seduce Angela Merkel into agreeing curbs on free movement, while staying inside the single market. The eisene Dame was not for turning and dismissed him and his public-school charms.

In the referendum itself, one would have to look at the misuse of expenses (something the Electoral Commission eventually, belatedly and cautiously did), the use of social media (Facebook in particular) to distort information, the role of the £350 million and other assorted lies, and the failure of mainstream media, particularly the BBC, to hold the campaigns to account. Then there is the question of Russian money. No Muller-style inquiry so far here.

Next comes the failure to prepare for a Leave victory. Was it really the case that Cameron simply refused to let civil servants work on that contingency? If so, why did they not stand up to him?

Fast forward to the advent of Theresa May. When she became prime minister, with no knowledge of Europe, where were the briefing papers to cope with the gargantuan task of taking us out of the EU? When she coined her absurd red lines, what checks and balances were exercised? And who oversaw the decisions to spend tens of millions on the self-indulgent civil service follies of Liam Fox’s long-haul jollies, aka the Department of International Trade, and the Brexit department? No sooner had the name plate for Dexeu been polished, then its responsibility for negotiations was taken back by Number 10.

As for the negotiations, they were found wanting from the outset. Why on earth, apart from traditional British arrogance, did we think we could divide the EU? We thought we could pick individual countries off from each other and from the Commission and Michel Barnier’s team. Where was the evidence to sustain this? The EU outsmarted the Brits at every turn.

Why did the prime minister trigger Article 50 when she did, so early on in the process? At a stroke she undermined the UK’s negotiating position, starting the clock before securing a single concession from the EU, either on substance or sequencing. Her second mistake was agreeing to the Northern Ireland protocol in December 2017 – a decision made apparently without consulting the Cabinet or the DUP. Did she have legal advice on the backstop? If not, why not? And if she did, why did she ignore it?

The final act of this tragi-comedy took place in parliament. How could our procedures be so laughably arbitrary? The speaker makes it up as he goes along. Governments try to force MPs into repeat voting, while insisting that a second referendum is a democratic insult. Nobody has a clue about the legalities or constitutional norms surrounding indicative votes or about no-deal as a default position, even though it has been rejected by parliament.

In order to conduct a full enquiry, our entire political system would need to be disentangled and dismembered. By the time that’s completed, all the guilty ones will have absconded, making money perhaps from betting on Britain’s economic demise. Investigation there will have to be. But don’t expect catharsis.

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