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12 March 2020

Five things we learned when Michael Gove appeared before the Brexit select committee

Erasmus is a maybe. Experts are still out of fashion. And Michael Gove can’t pour water.

By George Grylls

On a relentless day in Westminster, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of EU trade negotiations, squeezed in a brief appearance before the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU. Here’s what we learned

Parliamentary scrutiny is an uphill struggle

Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central and the chair of the select committee, began his questioning by trying to get Gove to provide more regular updates on the state of the EU negotiations.

Gove agreed to appear before the committee after every second cycle of negotiations (which operate on a formula of one week on, one week off, one week rest). He also said that he would “pass on an invitation” for the government’s chief negotiator David Frost to appear.

As a special adviser, Frost would not usually be expected to give evidence to select committees, but given his recent speech at the Free University of Brussels, where he laid out the government’s approach to the negotiations, his status is suddenly up for debate. Is he now a public spokesperson for the government and thus open to parliamentary scrutiny?

Gove has really had enough of experts

Gove was evasive, and effectively so. In an effort to bypass the seasoned parliamentarian, and get his hands on some hard evidence, Benn asked if the government would publish an economic assessment of the UK’s proposed trade deal with the EU. 

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Gove did not commit to doing so, stating that he was “personally sceptical” that any government assessment would be “an accurate depiction” of the facts. That is rather convenient because the last government Brexit economic forecast in 2018 estimated that the hit to the UK economy from the planned Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU would be 3.4-6.4 per cent of GDP.

Trouble ahead for the UK’s manufacturing industries

Some of the most incisive questions were posed by Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, who gave a simple list of EU institutions and asked whether or not the UK would have diverged from them by this point next year.

Gove could not commit to the European Arrest Warrant scheme. Erasmus was a maybe. Perhaps of greatest economic significance, however, was Gove’s confirmation that the UK would diverge from Reach – the body of EU legislation governing the chemicals industry.

Combined with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’s confirmation last week that the UK would be abandoning the European Aviation Safety Agency – sending the aerospace industry into a tailspin – this latest announcement contributes to the sense that the government’s FTA will be highly damaging to manufacturing in the UK. As I have written previously, neither the aerospace industry nor the chemicals industry, want to diverge from EU rules.

The government hasn’t worked out what to do about Northern Ireland

Various committee members tried and failed to get Gove to talk about the Northern Ireland protocol. 

Benn asked about goods declarations. Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, asked if state aid rules would be different in Northern Ireland. Philippa Whitford, the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, asked how the government would prevent Scottish fishermen from exploiting the different exports rules to land their catch in Northern Ireland and thus move business away from Scotland.

Gove’s response was always the same. It was a matter for the EU-UK joint committee. That is to say, Gove did not want to answer these questions, because, as the EU Withdrawal Agreement makes clear, the British Union is about to be severely tested by Brexit, and the government would rather not speak about it.

And finally… Michael Gove can’t pour water