When the Yellowhammer document assessing the effect of leaving the EU without a deal was leaked to The Sunday Times last month, Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal planning, dismissed it as an “old document”.
It turned out to have been 16 days old, drawn up eight days after he and Boris Johnson took office.
Gove also said that the paper – with its warnings of medicine shortages and civil unrest – set out “the absolutely worst case”. Now the government has published a version of the document headed “Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions”, so he appeared to be guilty merely of exaggeration.
But wait. Rosamund Urwin, the Sunday Times journalist who got the scoop, said the version she saw was headed: “Planning Assumptions” then “Base scenario”. In other words, not the worst possible outcomes but just the expected ones.
Gove disagreed with her on Twitter, saying she was “persisting in an error” and referring to his evidence to the Brexit select committee. Unfortunately for him, Urwin replied with extracts from the committee minutes in which Gove admitted that the phrase “base scenario” appeared in the document.
That ought to be the end of his disgraceful attempts to put the best spin on the document. He ought instead to focus on the third line of his defence, which is that he, as no-deal planning minister, has “taken more steps to mitigate” the effect of leaving without a deal.
If he really wanted to persuade a sceptical nation, he should set out the measures the government has taken to minimise the damaging effects of no-deal disruption. He should say that the whole point of the Yellowhammer exercise was to identify the problems and to deal with them.
The most effective line he could take, however, would be to say that parliament has already passed an act to prevent a no-deal Brexit. He could say we do not need to worry about a no-deal exit because it is not going to happen.
It might not be entirely convincing, because the EU could still refuse another Brexit extension, even if the prime minister is required by law to seek it. But that is still unlikely. The most plausible route to a no-deal Brexit is through a general election which Boris Johnson wins – which is why Labour MPs wouldn’t vote for it on Monday, and probably will never vote for it while the Tories are ahead in the opinion polls.
Instead of wasting his energy and credibility on unconvincing spin, Gove could say that the opposition’s use of a “humble address” to force the publication of a Yellowhammer document and communications about suspending parliament was a pointless bit of grandstanding.
The Yellowhammer document has already been published by The Sunday Times and is about a scenario that is now unlikely to happen, while the important fact about prorogation is that, if it was to stop an anti-no-deal law being passed, it didn’t work.
Gove could set out the facts. One fact is that the government has been defeated. But you can see why he doesn’t want to say that.