The EU referendum was supposed to be an example of direct democracy. Those who voted for Brexit wanted to “take back control”. And yet, it seems, only one person’s allowed to know anything about it.
David Davis, the Minister for Brexit, is in charge of the most significant negotiations in Britain in half a century. But unlike his colleagues in the Cabinet, he doesn’t need to consult on his department’s approach or even reveal his plans.
When grilled by the Foreign Affairs Committee, Davis refused to answer many questions on the basis that it could affect negotiations. He refused to talk about whether free trade or immigration would be prioritised. He refused to discuss in any detail what it would be like to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, except to declare: “I think it’s a very bad idea to go into negotiations fearing any of the outcomes.”
Other questions, such as on immigration policy, he suggested would be ones for the Home Office. Other questions were “above my paygrade”.
The Labour MP Mike Gapes pointed out that Davis would be negotiating for years. “How long do you think you can sustain this position?” he demanded. “My questions are the kind the people in this country want answers to.”
Davis, though, disagreed. “My job is to deliver,” he said. “We have a mandate like no other.”
He then elaborated: “It may be your approach to say, ‘Oh, because we’re asking the question, you’ve got to tell us the answer before we’ve worked it out’, but to me it seems a daft idea.”
When Gapes asked whether this meant the department hadn’t worked out anything, Davis retorted: “We’ve worked out the answers to some questions but not the ones you asked.”
Crispin Blunt, a fellow Tory, noted dryly of preparations for Brexit: “I think Mr Gapes’ questions have established the level of negligence.”
Mark Hendrick, another Labour MP, said investors and businesses wanted some kind of clarity: “Do you envisage some bespoke arrangement that you’re going to reveal like a rabbit out of a hat?” Japanese companies had specifically asked for more details on negotiations, he said.
Davis tried to dodge the question by harking back to his background in “big business” (he worked for the sugar company Tate & Lyle). He promised assessments and strategies.
Eventually, Blunt asked him to put it down in writing.
Quizzed about his department’s budget, Davis said cryptically: “What you get is what you need.”
At least there was one thing he could be clear about. When asked about the Brexiteer pledge of spending £350m a week more on the NHS, he said: “I made no such pledge.” The negotiations, he insisted, would not be made on the basis of someone else’s pledge, some other time.
Davis may be right to keep schtum about the details of negotiations, even if it is an extraordinarily handy way to deflect searching questions. But Leave voters will have to digest the fact that they have not “taken back control”, nor received much transparent information at all. Voting for Brexit has not cleared the clouds around Brussels. It has thickened the ones around Whitehall instead.