Some people are concerned we aren’t prepared for this Brexit situation, so it was heartening to hear Minister David Davis explain what happens if we don’t manage a deal with the EU, by saying he “hadn’t looked into it yet.”
This shows a steady hand, rather than someone who rushes into things by looking into stuff within the first nine months of a job specifically created to look into exactly that stuff. What’s achieved by panicking like that? Because Davis is only Minister for Brexit. How is he supposed to find out anything about Brexit, on top of all the other things in his title?
The government should create other specific posts to try and match Davis. They could create a Minister for Desiccated Coconut, so that after nine months they can say: “I won’t lie, I haven’t given a passing thought to desiccated coconut.” At least campaigners for leaving the EU were honest. Before the referendum, supporters of the Leave campaign like Davis always explained that if we left, they didn’t have the slightest idea what would happen, and even came up with the slogan “nine months after the result we’ll confirm we haven’t looked into it”, which as I recall they put on the side of a bus.
Theresa May has insisted that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, which introduced a philosophical edge to Brexit. Because how can anyone know whether it will be better or worse if we haven’t yet looked into it? It’s like saying you have no idea what’s on the other side of the universe, but whatever it is, it’s better than a donkey.
But Davis went even further, explaining: “You don’t need pieces of paper with a number on it to make an economic assessment.” Of course not, an economic assessment isn’t about numbers. When you apply for a mortgage, the bank asks how much you earn, and you say “a bit”, then the bank manager has a think and says: “In that case you’re allowed to borrow a yellowish amount, that reminds you of the sea.” So you ask: “How much will I have to pay back every month?” and they say: “Come back in nine months, by which time I won’t have looked into it yet.”
Asked whether British citizens will continue, after Brexit, to get free healthcare in the EU, Davis said they probably wouldn’t, but added reassuringly: “I have not looked at that one.”
There’s a man on top of his brief. Anyone can be clueless on the general direction of Brexit, but it takes dedication to be even more vague on each specific detail.
Hopefully the foreign health authorities will adopt the same attitude, and when a British citizen arrives at a Spanish hospital with appendicitis, they’re met by an appendicitis doctor who tells them to wait nine months, then they’ll be given a letter saying: “Do you know, I haven’t got the slightest clue about appendixes.”
Davis agreed that UK producers of dairy and meat will face tariffs of up to 40 per cent, conceding: “The numbers in agriculture are high.” It’s a shame he let his side down there, because acknowledging “high” is a bit too specific. Ideally he’d have answered the question by saying: “How long’s a piece of string, mate? I tell you what I do know about meat, I’ve got a lovely recipe for a liver casserole. The ingredients are a chunk of liver, an unspecified volume of stock and in indeterminate degree of vegetables. I won’t give you a piece of paper with exact numbers as that spoils a recipe.”
Asked how Brexit is likely to affect the border between Northern Ireland and the South, he explained it will be “light, not hard”. That was as much detail as he gave, so I expect he means the customs officers will always wear gloves before they put their fingers up your bottom.
This shows the problem Hammond made with his Budget, he gave out exact numbers. He should have said: “The borrowing requirements for the coming year as predicted by the Office of Budget Responsibility are a bit salty and not as soggy as you might think. To this end, National Insurance contributions for the self-employed will be curlier than they have been, and taste of cucumber.” Then he wouldn’t have had to change his mind and look an idiot.
But Davis was impressively consistent. Asked: “Would financial services lose passporting rights to trade in the EU?” he replied: “I expect so, that’s an area of uncertainty.”
Hilary Benn, who was asking the questions on behalf of a parliamentary committee, nodded, which shows how aloof he’s become. Because anyone normal would have gone: “Oh that’s the one area of uncertainty is it? That’s one small zone of ambiguity amidst a sea of poxy certainty with your definite super-accurate answers such as 'oh blimey I haven’t the foggiest idea' is it, Mister David 'Atomic Clock' Davis?”
The committee could have asked if he was a man or a woman, and he’d have said: “In these days of binary non-specific gender types it’s not easy to say, especially as I haven’t looked into it yet.”
You can understand how he was caught on the hop, because the campaign for Britain to leave the EU has only been going on for around 40 years, so they’ve hardly had a moment to consider what to do if they got their way.
But it brings politicians nearer to the common person, because Davis sounded like any random passer-by on a vox-pop for local news. When he finally presents the final treaty, it will just say: “Blimey, phhhh, dear oh dear, there’s all sorts to think about isn’t there? Does anyone know anything about olive oil?”