Working to make government more effective


Check, change, and going nowhere – the government’s Brexit communications plan is falling short

The government’s current Brexit communications strategy is unlikely to drive the action it wants

As the pressure to be prepared for the end of the transition period mounts, Maddy Thimont Jack says the government’s current communications strategy is unlikely to drive the action it wants.

In four and a half months the UK will leave the EU single market and customs union, but the country is far from ready. The government recognises that needs to change.

In July it launched a communications campaign with the tagline “Check, Change, Go” – with adverts on TV, the radio, and online. This should be a clarion call to action – and a stark warning of the problems unprepared businesses and citizens will face when transition ends, deal or no deal. Instead the advertisements describe the new opportunities for the UK after the end of transition. The word ‘Brexit’ – now banned from the government lexicon – is not mentioned once, despite the fact it means more to most people than the end of ‘transition’. 

As it stands, the campaign risks lulling people into a false sense of security – to wait for the sunlit uplands of new opportunities and get on with the day to day grind of trying to recover from some of the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

A failure to communicate will only exacerbate the challenges business faces getting ready for the end of transition

In a recent report we argued that businesses will face a greater challenge preparing for the end of this year than they did ahead of a possible no deal in 2019. Responding to coronavirus has reduced both cash flow and the bandwidth within organisations to take the steps that are needed to prepare for the changing relationship with the EU. And the risk of a second wave of coronavirus perpetuates the economic uncertainty as we head into the Autumn. The majority of firms have not even begun to prepare.

But the current communications campaign is unlikely to help. The government doesn’t seem to have learnt the lessons of last year’s ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign – which failed to drive preparedness amongst business. This was, in part, due to ongoing political uncertainty – but the UK is now out of the EU, so that is no excuse this time. The bigger firms will have had plans in place for no deal last year that can be adapted for the end of 2020. But smaller and medium sized businesses largely failed to prepare in 2019 and will have even less capacity to think about the implications of the end of the transition period.

The government has pledged further support for these kinds of businesses as the crunch point draws closer. But continuing with an advertising campaign which fails to convey any useful messaging about what steps to take and what will happen if these steps aren’t taken will only place more pressure on these other interventions succeeding.

So the government needs to track whether “Check, Change, Go” actually led to any “Change” – and be prepared to adapt this messaging accordingly.

Prioritising political messaging over key facts will only store up problems for 2021

Ministers may not want to talk about Brexit,  but they need to convey the message that what Brexit really means – leaving the single market and customs union – is far from complete. Ministers and MEPs had their lives changed at the end of January when the UK pulled out of the political institutions, but everyone else could carry on as before. 

And regardless of how ready the UK is for the changes that will take effect at 11pm on 31 December 2020, there will be disruption – especially at the border. The government is already anticipating this with its recent announcement that it plans to revive the Operation Brock no-deal plans from last year to manage possible traffic disruption in Kent.

For business, December 31 will bring an unparalleled amount of red tape, extra hassle and administrative costs to add to their already strained cash flow. And life will change for everyone else too. Defra has already started warning of the needs to get pets properly vaccinated to be able to take them abroad, but people will need to think in due course about driving licences, health insurance and passports. Although this may be one area where Covid-19 restrictions helps the government muddle through.

This might not make for the type of advertising campaign that the government would prefer to run, and it is understandable that ministers want to trumpet opportunities rather than warn about problems. But it is also short-sighted. Better preparation will reduce disruption, so people need to be told exactly what they need to do to prepare – and how.

Few people have checked, let alone changed. Unless the government alters its message, spelling out what will change as a result of Brexit as well as the consequences of failing to prepare, then many businesses and citizens will end up going nowhere.

Johnson government
Institute for Government

Related content

13 JUL 2020 Online event
13 July 2020

Is business ready for Brexit?

The Institute for Government was delighted to host this panel event on whether business is ready for Brexit.