Johnson and Gove outflanked by government economists

The Brexiteer ministers - Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Credit: PA

Monday's Brexit subcommittee meeting of the most senior Cabinet members passed off without a fracas and was - according to those in the room - "constructive and useful".

Why wasn't there the now traditional Brexit punch-up?

Well it is because the PM, foreign sec, home sec, Brexit sec, Chancellor and agric sec - inter alia - were debating the "uncontentious" questions of what our future security relationship with the EU should look like and how we would share data.

In other words, the policy so politically hot that it glows blue in the dark - the shape of our preferred future trading relationship with the EU - was not discussed.

But the Cabinet's biggest hitters will have their electric debate on this question - which is so disputed that it may prompt ministerial resignations - in the middle of next week, on Feb 7, I am told.

Now what will be a ministerial brawl is being "informed" by confidential and highly sensitive analysis of the economic impact of different possible trading relationships the UK might have with the EU.

The analysis is being disseminated in a novel way: because of fear of leaks, ministers are not being given documents.

Instead a director general and economist at the Department of Exiting the EU, Susannah Storey, makes a personal presentation - with slides - to any Secretary of State on the crucial cabinet sub-committee who requests it.

She's accompanied by an economist from the Treasury. And the relevant Secretary of State is encouraged to bring along the chief economist from his or her respective department, just in case he or she wants reassurance that it isn't a terrible Whitehall stitch-up.

Will the electric Cabinet debate take place next week? Credit: PA

What amuses me most is the civil-service politics of this. The analysis is led by the economics section of the arch-Brexiteer David Davis’s Dexeu - and not by that last bastion of the Remoaners, which cried Armageddon during the EU referendum campaign, the Treasury.

The work was done and is owned by the cross departmental Government Economic Service.

With this device, the Treasury and the Chancellor Philip Hammond are trying to protect themselves from the inevitable charge that they are mugging the heroes of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

In practice, of course, Johnson and Gove are being well and truly duffed up.

The point is that the analysis shows UK growth and prosperity would be significantly greater if UK rules and regulations for business were closely aligned to those of the EU, and never diverged to any significant extent - because this would be expected to deliver cheaper and less cumbersome access for UK goods and services to the EU's giant Single Market.

In other words, the civil service economists are underwriting the political position of Hammond, Amber Rudd and Greg Clark that it is worth sacrificing a degree of national control over rules and regs for the sake of becoming a bit less poor or a bit more rich (depending on what else is transpiring in an economic sense).

Or to put it another way, the Whitehall "experts" - so derided by Gove in the run-up to the referendum - are getting their own back on Gove and Johnson by providing supposed empirical proof that the Leavers' passion to take back total control over making laws that affect business and commerce would be to throw mountains of £50 notes on to a religious fire.

The government economists' case for remaining "converged" with the EU is so clear and overwhelming, I am informed, that ministers tell me they are utterly bemused by how Johnson and Gove will dismiss it - as they surely will.

Which leaves a PM, who in effect has the casting vote, with the invidious decision of whether to back an ostensibly impartial civil service analysis or embrace the convictions of her two most outspoken and influential colleagues.

Will she back the orthodoxy of Sir Humphrey and the mandarinate or the apostasy of Mr Boris and the Brexit bunch?

Whichever choice she makes has the potential to split her party. So it presumably feels to her less like boring boring economics and more like Russian roulette with a loaded bazooka.