Photo of Hilary Benn, 2016, Shutterstock

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs refused to support the conclusions of the third report by the parliamentary committee for exiting the EU, chaired by Labour MP, Hilary Benn. While Benn described the Brexit report as “balanced and fair”, the 6 Tory MPs found it “negative”, with Conservative MP Dominic Raab calling it “rushed, skewed and partisan.”

Hilary Benn’s “negative” assessment focussed on the evidence provided by the Brexit secretary David Davis, who had said that the government didn’t prepare for the economic repercussions of leaving the EU without a trade deal. Ben explained: “that the government should do an assessment, and when we asked [Davis] has the government done so, his reply was no we haven’t. Maybe they will, and that’s why we set out they should.” Benn also added that Theresa May’s claim “no deal is better than a bad deal” was a slogan with no evidence to back it up: “If the government is going to make this assertion that no deal would be better than a bad deal, then I think everyone would expect the government to have done some assessment.”

Benn said that members of the committee declined to sign up to the report, as he understood that Brexit elicits strong emotions, but stressed that the committee’s job was to faithfully reflect the evidence and provide conclusions that would force the government to be accountable for its actions.

Because the report was criticising the government’s lack of a plan in the case of leaving the EU without a trade deal, a third of the committee left the meeting, while two thirds of it, were moderately satisfied with the 150-page draft. The pro-Brexit MPs that walked out of the room didn’t bother suggesting amendments because they felt the disagreements were too many and crucial.

Exiting the European Union Committee

The committee is appointed by the House of Commons “to examine the expenditure, administration, and policy of the Department for Exiting the European Union and related matters falling within the responsibilities of associated public bodies.”

The third report didn’t focus on benefits or opportunities deriving from Brexit, but “on the Government’s negotiating objectives.” It consisted of sections discussing issues like certainty and clarity, a stronger, fairer and global Britain, as well as the possibility of a phased approach.

Providing certainty and clarity

Referring to the “Great Repeal Bill” and the delegation of powers, the committee reiterated the argument made by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution that granting the government wide delegated powers meant that such powers shouldn’t be used for implementing new government policies. They stated that “A major justification for Brexit was to enhance Parliamentary sovereignty. Leaving the European Union should not therefore result in a shift in power from Parliament to the Executive. The Committee believes it is essential that Parliament plays a full role in all Brexit-related legislation including the “Great Repeal Bill”.

Vote on the final deal

The report pointed out that the government’s white paper said that parliament would vote on a final deal between the EU and the UK, and they added that parliament should also have a vote in the case of “no deal.” The committee wrote: “Leaving the EU without a future trade deal and in doing so defaulting to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules is no less an important decision for the UK’s economic future than the terms of any future Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU. It is therefore essential that such a step is not taken without Parliament having a vote on the matter.”

Stronger Britain

The report highlighted that a deal that works for everyone should take into consideration the different parts of the UK, their priorities and different economies and demography so that when it begins negotiations with the EU, the government will properly represent the differing views of all of the UK. For example, the report proposed that the UK government should “respond formally to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland legislatures regarding each of their options papers. It must do so as a matter of urgency given that negotiations to leave the EU will start imminently.”

EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU

The report recommended that there needs to be an agreement between the UK and EU27 before the negotiations commence in the form of a separate deal that doesn’t depend on any exit or future deal between the two parties. They said: “We welcome the intention of both the Secretary of State and Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit, to meet representatives from the EU nationals in the UK and the UK nationals who are resident across Europe in advance of the negotiations. This is an important development and we hope it is a positive step towards an early resolution of the uncertainty and anxiety of the four million across Europe.”

A “no deal” scenario

The committee emphasised that the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent conclusion was that a no deal scenario represented “a very destructive outcome leading to mutually assured damage for the EU and the UK.” They highlighted that the government is confident walking away with “no deal” but has not yet explained how this would be better than a bad deal. They proposed that the government needs to “conduct a thorough assessment of the economic, legal and other implications of leaving the EU at the end of the Article 50 period with ‘no deal’ in place” so the public and Parliament are informed about the impact of the “future trading options being considered, including the possibility of no FTA being reached.”

The committee wrote that “the Government’s assertion that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, is unsubstantiated. Parliament must be in an informed position to decide whether a proposed deal is, in fact, better or worse than ‘no deal’.”

The committee’s biggest and most crucial point was the warning about leaving the EU without a deal and the need for an economic assessment of that possibility. Liberal Democrat committee member Alistair Carmichael said the report is "a devastating critique of the shambles that is the Conservative Brexit strategy". While David Davis clarified that the government does realise that “no deal is not what we want or expect” it would still “be better than a deal which [seeks] … to punish the UK.” For others, like Brexiteers Michael Gove and Peter Lilley, not turning up in the meeting to deal with the complexities of Brexit was probably the best deal.