A curious thing happened in Parliament on Wednesday night. We saw a debate in which the Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, the pro-European backbench Conservative MP Anna Soubry and the fanatical hard-line Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg, all found themselves on the same side of an argument. So, what was this unifying moment, bringing together politicians with wildly different ideological backgrounds? The answer is simple: it was the basic principles of parliamentary scrutiny and sovereignty on which our democracy is founded. The right of elected representatives to have proper access to information relevant to the lives of their constituents. The power of our Parliament to vote against or in favour of something, and the requirement of Government to abide by that decision.
Wednesday night’s debate focused on the Brexit sectoral impact assessments the Government has conducted, analysing the effects of Brexit on 58 different sectors of the UK economy. The sectors themselves range from aerospace, to construction, to pharmaceuticals, to museums with much more in-between. Overall, as Open Britain calculated, these 58 sectors cover about 88% of the UK economy, affecting approximately 29million workers of this country’s workers. So far, the Government has repeatedly refused to release these impact assessments, arguing that to do so would undermine the ongoing Brexit negotiations. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, this argument is patently ridiculous. A number of Government ministers have admitted they haven’t even read the reports in full, so how can they possibly know whether or not the contents would undermine the negotiations? And putting that ludicrous argument to one side, do working people in this country not have the right to know how Brexit will impact their jobs, their careers and their livelihoods?
Parliament’s unanimous vote in favour of the Brexit impact assessments being handed over to the Brexit Select Committee came after the Government chose not to oppose the motion. In all likelihood, this decision was made because they knew they would lose the vote if they tried to block it. The cross-party consensus on the issue of Government transparency and accountability is very clear: the majority of MPs do not want the Government to be given a blank cheque to pursue a hard, destructive Brexit or an extreme no-deal Brexit, whilst keeping the public in the dark about what the effects of that will be.
The Government had no choice but to agree to share the documents with the Committee, which it has now committed to do. What is vital now is that this happens quickly, and that there are no redactions or deletions of material. That would not be good enough and it would ignore the express wishes of our sovereign Parliament. Government’s ultimate responsibility is to the people it represents, not its own political survival. The real reason the Government has been so reluctant to release these reports is glaringly obvious, and was highlighted during Wednesday night’s debate in scathing fashion by pro-European Conservative MP Anna Soubry. Confronting the die-hard Brexit fanatics on her own benches, she said: “The implication is quite clear: there’s something in them that’s not to be disclosed because it might prick this golden bubble, this balloon, of the promised land of Brexit.”
Clearly this is the case. The reports will show just how damaging leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union would be to every sector of the UK economy. They also undoubtedly show what by now everyone except the most ideologically committed of Brexit supporters knows: that a no-deal Brexit would be an absolute, unmitigated catastrophe for this country. It would drive the economy off a cliff, leave millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU in legal limbo, create a hard border in Ireland and bring to a halt everything from police and counter-terrorism cooperation to flights between the UK and Europe.
But the crucial point is this: people have the right to know this information, alarming as it is. The Government does not have the right to hide it from the public, just because releasing it would be politically inconvenient for them. And once these reports are released, once people have access to the full picture, and once the true costs of Brexit become clearer, there is one more thing to remember: living in a democracy means always having the right to change your mind.