Richard North, 22/12/2017  

Unexpectedly, we get to see 39 sectoral reports, supposedly produced by the government to aid the Brexit process. From the amount of fuss that has attended these documents, one might have thought that they had some substance, except that there was never a real chance of that.

Right from the beginning, the idea that the government might be producing useful briefing documents was always a stretch, and so it has turned out to be. Described as "Wikipedia-Lite" in some quarters, they could only be a disappointment to anyone who had any expectations of value, and I can't think of anyone who did.

Such is the trivial, almost patronising level of the content that even the staid Bloomberg was driven to irony with the headline: "UK's secret Brexit studies reveal that Airbus makes planes".

Undoubtedly, our quality of life has been hugely enhanced with such epic statements as:
The parts of an aircraft can be simplistically split into three areas: structures which include the nose, fuselage, wings, engine nacelles (which encase the engines) and tail; propulsion system which includes engines and propellers, or fan blades; and systems which include the electronics used in the flight system, as well as areas such as landing-gear, lighting, actuation of control surfaces and landing gear doors, heating, air conditioning, and so on.
Other gems, picked up by the Mirror, include the government telling us that tourism is "purchased by someone travelling", the food sector is vital for consumers, the postal market can be split into two markets: letters and parcels; electricity is a fundamental part of modern society; the UK construction industry covers items such as bricks, cement, sand and concrete; retail is a "large and very diverse sector"; and space is a "global industry".

Then go to the report on Road Haulage and you'll get a treatment which manages to omit any reference to the mutual recognition of drivers' licenses and certificates of professional competence, issues rehearsed by this blog last January – almost a year ago now.

Understandably, a MinBrex spokesman is seeking to play down even further the less than Herculean effort, saying: "Our analysis is not, nor has it ever been, a series of impact assessments examining the quantitative impact of the UK's EU exit on the 58 sectors".

Putting us mere mortals in our place, this god-like figure tells us: "We are undertaking a comprehensive programme of analytical work. These reports are a part of that. They are not exhaustive, nor are they the final say on any of these issues".

In that last sentence, these is at least truth. The documents show every sign of a rushed "cut-n-paste" job, fuelling suspicions that these "reports" didn't actually exist when David Davis made his infamous boast. "These documents in aggregate represent the most comprehensive picture of our economy on this issue to date", the man had said when forced to defend his refusal to publish them.

But if this is the best that the government can offer, with all its resources and its multi-million budget for lawyers and consultants, then it is hardly surprising that it is making such a mess of Brexit. As "intelligence" briefings, their superficiality is embarrassing.

This blog alone has produced far more detailed work with a level of resource so slight compared with what the government can call upon that it could scarcely register.

But if the government is, rightly, quick to deny that these are "impact assessments", and denies that it has produced any such assessments, this rather begs the question as to why an exercise of the magnitude and importance of Brexit has been allowed to proceed without them.

I do recall, however, the reports of the early stages of the Afghan War where it was admitted that British troops were committed without adequate intelligence. Similarly, Blair committed troops to Iraq in support of President Bush with no idea of what they were getting into.

One might just get the impression that government acting without first carrying out detailed analysis, and without adequate intelligence, is something of a habit.

Certainly, we have already had reports from multiple sources that Mrs May made the decision to take us out of the Single Market with no awareness of the consequences. Yet the role of the impact analysis is precisely to inform decision-maker of where their actions might take us.

The situation gets even more disturbing when the vast collective of "civil society", from the media to the think tanks and academia, has been unable to produce anything very much better than the government's reports. The entire Brexit debate, from the highest levels, is run on ignorance.

Even much of the material lauded by the media is riddled with error and superficial to a fault. It is a measure of its incompetence that it rarely able to assess adequate the quality of the material on which it reports. If it occasionally gets it right, it is more by accident than design.

Should one yearn after some more substantial material, a good (if limited) source is the European Parliament. It has offered exactly what the UK government has yet to deliver, a series of "Brexit Impact Studies". And knowing how closely the EU institutions work together, it can be assumed that the European Commission has availed itself of this work.

This puts us rather in the position in which the British Army found itself in 2009, hampered by its own poor intelligence and confronted by a vastly better-informed Taliban. The government has put itself in a position where it is not only ill-informed but having to confront an adversary which has far better intelligence.

Under these circumstances, it is extraordinarily difficult to understand the game the government is playing. It really stretches the imagination virtually to breaking point having to accept that the government is going willingly into battle unprepared – a level almost (if not actually) amounting to criminal negligence.  

There can hardly a situation where, in a negotiation, one of the principal parties voluntarily surrenders the advantage to the other side, making policy choices with no idea of the consequences. What possible stratagem can the government have in mind that it should so carelessly give up that advantage?

One could, of course, suppose that somewhere in government there is a strategic genius – Whitehall's equivalent of Dominic "second" Cummings – who is rolling out a masterplan so fiendishly clever that us mere mortals can't even begin to comprehend it - just like Cummings did for Vote Leave (not). That, however, would require a level of credulity which seems hardly possible.

That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that we are in the hands fools or knaves – or both. But then that is hardly a novel conclusion. It's something we've suggesting for some considerable time.

Yet, if previously we have merely suggested incompetence on the part of this government, the effect of this little episode is to prove it. There is no possible explanation for the behaviour of this government other than actual, demonstrable criminal incompetence.

But hey! Things really can't be that bad. The government may not have the first idea of how to handle these negotiations. But at least we're going to get blue passports.

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