Chris Heaton-Harris became the 30th minister to resign from Theresa May’s government when he quit his post as the junior minister at the Department for Exiting the EU responsible for overseeing the Government’s preparations for a no deal exit.
In his resignation letter he said his job was irrelevant because the Prime Minister does not intend to take the UK out of the EU without a deal, and complained that the information the Prime Minister has been given on no deal preparations does not “reflect...all [the civil service] has achieved or the preparations our European partners have made.”
This exposes a fundamental flaw in the way the Government has gone about preparing for no deal: there is no way to assess how much progress it has made. The vacuum of information created by the Government has been filled by counterclaim and misinformation, with loud voices on either side claiming that no deal will either be a catastrophe or perfectly plain sailing. The reality will be somewhere in between, and inevitably the biggest issues will be those that are unexpected.
No deal preparation began in earnest in summer 2018, with the publication of ‘technical notices’ setting out what public bodies, businesses and individuals need to do ahead of a no deal exit. Since then, the Government has continued to update its instructions to businesses, but there is no way of knowing if it has achieved everything it set out to do .
The one attempt by government to show its workings fell short of providing any useful information. That February paper said that up to a third of the “most critical” no deal projects were off track, but did not say what they were or how the Government planned to bring them back on track.
Heaton-Harris himself appeared in front of the Exiting the EU Committee at the start of the year to discuss no deal planning and was unable to answer many of the questions posed, failing to reassure Committee members that the Government was on track to be ready.
Many other select committees continue to probe no deal preparations. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard that the “biggest challenge” for Defra ministers is no deal preparations, while in February the NAO found that a number of key systems for managing the border in the case of no deal were rated red or amber-red, meaning that getting them ready in time is either unachievable or in doubt.
If Heaton-Harris has now found out that the Government will indeed be ready, he should share that information with Parliament – and the rest of us.
Being ready for no deal requires preparation by business and individuals as well as the Government. But the lack of openness has made this more difficult. The Government was initially wary of telling people what they need to do as it didn’t want to cause unnecessary spending (or anxiety). As a result, its communications campaign about the impact of no deal only started for real in recent weeks, too late for many small businesses to complete the preparations they need ahead of no deal.
The only evidence to suggest that the campaign is working is that the websites for people to renew passports or register for settled status both crashed due to high demand – hardly a reassuring sign that the Government is ready for everything that no deal will bring.
And this lack of communication has made it harder for others to prepare for no deal.
According to the Government’s own research from February, over half of adults do not believe they will be affected by a no deal exit. At the end of February, only 20% of eligible businesses had registered for an EORI number which they will need to export goods if there is no deal. The Government considers this “one of the most basic and straightforward” parts of preparing for no deal, suggesting that many businesses have not yet even begun to contemplate the more complex aspects of no deal.
This Government’s approach to Brexit has been characterised by secrecy and a lack of communication, both internally between departments and externally with Parliament and the country at large. This has become the norm, and now a resigning minister has insinuated that senior officials or political aides are deliberately misleading the Prime Minister to scaremonger about the effects of no deal. This is presumably in part a reference to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, whose advice to ministers on the impacts of no deal was leaked to the press earlier this week; it is clear that his assessment of no deal is very different from Heaton-Harris’s. With no transparency on the state of Government preparations for no deal, including on ministers’ response to Sedwill’s warning, there is no way to assess whether Heaton-Harris is accurate, or whether this is yet another case of no deal misinformation.
If the Government had been more open to date, it would not face these allegations. And if it hopes to maximise the UK’s readiness for no deal, or deliver a sustainable relationship with the EU, it needs to be much more open in the future.