The Leavers on the Brexit select committee inadvertently gave a boost to this week’s report on the consequences of “no deal” between the UK and the EU, when they walked out of a meeting they complained was “too gloomy”. Without the row it would have been just another report from just another committee. But in refusing to discuss amendments or to consider the report, they drew attention to its important findings.
The Brexit select committee report may make difficult reading for Leavers, but it sets out the evidence that the select committee has received – that this is a huge complex negotiation with many unanswered questions, that ministers in the devolved administrations don’t believe the Joint Ministerial Committee set up by the government is working well, that there are particularly sensitive issues around the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and, most tellingly of all, that the claim from the government that “no deal is better than a bad” deal has been made without any foundation.
Leaving the EU without a future trade deal means defaulting to World Trade Organisation terms. In brief, these WTO terms involve quotas of, for example, 10 per cent tariffs on cars and up to 40 per cent on agricultural products. Even more importantly in today’s trading world, there would be non-tariff barriers for the service industries which dominate the UK s economy.
When the secretary of state for Brexit, David Davis, appeared recently before the committee, he was forced to admit the government had made no assessment of what the effect of no deal/WTO terms would be on the UK economy. It was an uncomfortable appearance for him and no doubt embarrassing for the Leave supporters on the committee. And since his appearance we have heard a bit less from ministers about how having no deal would be, as Boris Johnson put it, “perfectly OK”.
Yet after the Brexit secretary’s appearance, it was inevitable that the select committee’s report on the issue would conclude there was no basis for the government’s “no deal” claims and that these were “unsubstantiated”. Nor were we alone in being critical on this issue. The Foreign Affairs select committee, chaired by a Conservative, went even further a couple of weeks ago, describing the no deal option as “a very destructive outcome”.
There is a broader point here. Whilst it may be difficult for leading Leave supporters to hear these verdicts and the evidence that led to them, not wanting to hear things doesn’t make them go away. There is no point in walking out and refusing to take part. If that is the reaction to this report, or to difficult issues with Brexit being exposed, there could be a lot more walking out of more rooms in the future.
The better approach would be for Leavers to face up to the responsibility for having led and won the referendum campaign. Instead of saying tough questions are “gloomy” or defy “the will of the people” they should engage with them, answer them and be accountable for the promises they made. With victory comes political ownership. You don’t exercise that by walking out. You exercise it by reaching out and taking responsibility for what is to come.