IT really seems to be turning into something of an omni-shambles down Westminster way.
On Wednesday morning, the following headline flashed up on the Reuters financial news terminal: “UK can’t quantify impact of leaving EU without trade deal – Brexit minister.”
Calling up the text of the story confirmed that David Davis was indeed revealing the UK had not in the wake of the Brexit vote conducted an assessment of the economic effects of leaving the European Union without a new trade deal with the bloc. Even in the context of the UK Government’s noisy and entirely chaotic performance following last June’s Brexit vote, this is surely utterly bizarre.
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And the detail of Mr Davis’s comments was no less remarkable.
Mr Davis told the Exiting the European Union committee on Wednesday the latest available analysis of the no-deal scenario dated back to before the EU referendum.
He declared: “Those forecasts don’t appear to have been very robust.”
However, pressed on whether any work on the economic impact of the no-deal scenario had been done since then, Mr Davis replied: “If you mean under my time, no.”
This looks like a categoric answer.
And it is all the more jaw-dropping because it is exactly this type of “hard Brexit” approach that seems to appeal so much to Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet, who appear at pains to prioritise curbing immigration over access to the European single market.
We have had all the rhetoric from Mrs May about no deal being better than a bad deal with the EU. But how on earth, based on Mr Davis’s comments, could anyone know that?
Mr Davis’s explanation to the committee hearing on Wednesday seemed very far from convincing. He declared: “You don’t have to have a piece of paper with a number on it to have an economic assessment. I spent…most of my working life before coming into politics dealing with business. You often knew what was a good deal even though you didn’t have the numbers.”
Surely, by this time, there should be several pieces of paper, with more than a few numbers on them, spelling out the likely economic impact on the UK if Mrs May and her ministers fail to reach a trade deal with the EU. It seems like the very least we could expect.
The UK Government could be forgiven for being a bit preoccupied this week following First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement she would seek the approval of the Scottish Parliament next week to start negotiations with the UK Government on staging another independence referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. However, Mr Davis took up the post of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union last July. And, while this week might have been a bit busy, there have been many months for the UK Government to calculate the likely cost of its seemingly favoured “hard Brexit” strategy.
European Council President Donald Tusk was rather more convincing on the hot Brexit topic this week, observing what he described as “increasing threats” from the UK in terms of all the talk of no agreement with the EU being better than a bad one.
He told the European Parliament: “The claims – increasingly taking the form of threats that no agreement will be good for the UK and bad for the EU
– [need] to be addressed.
“A no-deal scenario would be bad for everyone, but above all for the UK because it would leave a number of issues unresolved. We will not be intimidated by threats and I can assure you they simply will not work.”
Given what we are hearing from Mr Davis and fellow Conservative ministers, it was not surprising that a survey published this week by recruitment company Manpower showed the prospect of Brexit is having a detrimental impact on Scottish employers’ hiring intentions. And it is interesting that London, which like Scotland voted convincingly to remain in the EU, has also seen a significant deterioration in hiring intentions.
The Scottish constitutional situation has not been the only thing to have kept the UK Government occupied this week, of course.
The Conservatives have also been pretty tied up with the aftermath of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s announcement in his Budget last week that he would be raising the rate of National Insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed.
This move went down very badly with the business community, and was viewed, to put it mildly, as something of a political own goal from a Tory chancellor. It was also considered widely to be at odds with at least the spirit of pledges in the Conservatives’ 2015 General Election manifesto.
In a letter to the Treasury committee on Wednesday, Mr Hammond revealed a very swift u-turn indeed on his planned National Insurance changes. The volte-face leaves him having to find large sums of money from elsewhere.
The Chancellor, faced with a revolt by MPs in his own party, wrote: “It is very important both to me and to the Prime Minister that we are compliant not just with the letter, but also the spirit, of the commitments that were made. In light of what has emerged as a clear view among colleagues and a significant section of the public, I have decided not to proceed with the Class 4 NIC measures set out in the Budget. There will be no increases in NICs rates in this Parliament.”
In decades past, Wednesday was “Anything Can Happen Day” in the Mickey Mouse Club. And so it has proved for the Conservatives this week.
Mrs May claimed on Monday that Ms Sturgeon’s requested referendum would cause huge economic uncertainty at the “worst possible time”. We got a variation of this yesterday, with the Prime Minister’s “now is not the time” brush-off. These statements from Mrs May have divided opinion.
But one thing is for sure: the Tories’ ineptitude on key UK economic and public finance issues, amid their broader Great British Brexit farce, is coming at the worst possible time.