David Davis must be livid. Not cross, peeved, irked, or vexed. The Brexit Secretary must be so beside himself with incandescent fury that any doctor would send him straight to A&E to be strapped to a blood pressure monitor.
For years and years, the verity most relentlessly peddled by Brexiteers like himself, under the general header of “getting our country back”, has been that only by leaving the EU could we restore the supremacy of Parliament. Finally, hurrah, we’d be spared all those anti-democratic fixes those sneaky foreigners go in for in Brussels. Freed from the EU yoke, the will of the Commons would once again reign supreme.
So imagine Davis’s white hot rage today to find the will of the Commons being sneakily frustrated in such a glaringly undemocratic way.
Nothing will pacify him completely. He is too much the man of iron principle to shrug indifferently on finding the paramount ambition of Brexit being crudely ridiculed. Yet there are a couple of incidentals that may assuage him enough to bring his blood pressure down from the dangerous levels to which one presumes it’s been hoiked.
For one thing, the refusal to obey an apparently binding Commons vote has dulled the partisanship that has made the debate so screechingly dull. From the opposite extremes of the Tory Brexit spectrum, Ken Clarke and Jacob Rees-Mogg are united in agreeing with Labour Brexit boss Keir Starmer that this is a disgrace.
For another thing, the person responsible for outrageously defying the Common’s will, and possibly guilty of contempt of Parliament, is a certain David Davis.
At the time of writing, he has just been summoned by the Brexit Select Committee to explain why the 58 economic impact assessments the Commons voted it should see have been heavily edited.
If and when he pops along, I’m not sure how much light Davis will be able to shed. Since no one would dream of calling him a rancid hypocrite, the most credible explanation is that he is terribly confused. It must be the stress of flying to all those negotiations on noisy RAF jets, but he doesn’t know whether it’s New York or Christmas. If he was sent to A&E, he’d tell the triage nurse it’s because his GP said his blood pressure was a textbook 120/80, and be escorted to the psych ward for appraisal.
The cynics and sneerers will have a rival theory. They will posit that Davis acted rationally and deliberately by hiding the detail in which the devilish horror of Brexit can be found; that he did so because that detail is so scary that it would, if leaked, shift opinion violently towards Remain.
Brexit, whatever the official consensus among politicians on both sides of the debate, is not a certainty. Leaving the EU still has a command probability lead over staying. But the gap is gradually narrowing, and races have been lost from further in front. Brexit could yet pull a Devon Loch, and do the splits with the winning post in sight.
That depends wholly on public opinion. Currently, most polls have it about even, or give Remain an advantage far too small to tempt a government to risk low-level civil war by offering a chance to reverse the result.
If the polls move dramatically to show a solid 60-40 majority for remaining, everything changes. A second referendum goes odds-on the moment it is more dangerous to ignore the current democratic will than to ignore the outmoded democratic will of 17 months ago.
The only thing capable of moving the polls to that degree is credible and terrifying economic data. Millions who voted Leave in abstract, without much clue what it would mean, would reconsider if government-commissioned economic impact assessments told them they will be much poorer out of the EU than in it.
So those cynics and sneerers will suspect David Davis of editing out crucial information through the fear of jeopardising something to which he is ideologically committed.
There is a third theory. Perhaps he shares the faith in homeopathy that helps make Jeremy Hunt such a perfect fit for Health Secretary, and thinks the way to cure parliament of its irrelevance is by ignoring its instructions.
If that sounds like a quack remedy for a potentially fatal illness, it is. It makes about as much sense as the Brexit Department official who justified the editing process as follows: “Disclosure would set a precedent that would inhibit free and frank discussion in the future.” Wouldn’t Joseph Heller be thrilled to see Catch 22 slip the bonds of the fictional satire genre, and moonlighting as an essential briefing document at the Department for Exiting the EU?
“There is a strong public interest in policymaking associated with our exit from the EU being of the highest quality,” that civil servant continued on David Davis’s behalf, “and conducted in a safe space to allow for design and deliberation to be done in private.”
Or to translate from the Mandarin (Whitehall dialect) into English, “Government knows best. The last thing it needs is MPs and the people they represent sticking their grubby little paws in where they don’t belong.”
So there – you have reclaimed democracy, Brexit-style. Isn’t it splendid?
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