29 October 2019

With the Article 50 period extended once again, Joe Owen argues that the government will find it harder than ever to get ready for Brexit.

We are now on at least the third design for the commemorative Brexit 50p coins. With another extension now secured, the Royal Mint might want to consider producing an 'Article 50: Collector’s Edition' – made up of coins to mark 31 October, 12 April, the original 29 March and the latest deadline of 31 January. 

The Royal Mint, which only produced a fraction of the planned three million coins for circulation, decided against listening to the government’s “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign – which, until just days ago, categorically stated that “the UK will leave the EU on 31 October”. This decision has saved it time, money and some embarrassment – and it isn't the only organisation in that position. Some of the recent figures on trader readiness suggest there are many businesses that will be relieved that their inaction was justified. 

Crying wolf on Brexit changes for a third time will have consequences for Brexit readiness 

The prime minister could not have done more to commit to the October deadline – he promised to leave on that date “come what may, do or die”. Words might be cheap, but the government’s £100m no-deal communications campaign was not. 

Some argued the campaign was always just political posturing. But inside government it was seen as a vital part of no-deal preparations. After the missed March exit, many officials responsible for Brexit preparations were nervous that businesses and citizens had not prepared properly – and with that initial indecision vindicated would take future deadlines even less seriously. To get businesses to ‘march up the hill’ again would take more effort and investment – particularly when those who did prepare saw less proactive competitors benefit from their decision not to invest in no deal. 

But the campaign was far from being a resounding success, with the National Audit Office saying it would have “limited impact” on readiness. Perhaps a greater concern is that the government has now ‘cried wolf’ for a third time. If the UK approaches another key deadline, there is not much the government or prime minister can do that couldn’t be greeted with a response of “well, we’ve heard that before”. 

The government needs to quickly decide what it will do about a possible no deal in January  

The big headache for those working on no-deal planning will be what to do about the January deadline. As much as opposition parties might like, the government cannot completely rule out no deal. Even if no major party will campaign in a general election on a no-deal Brexit platform, this does not make that outcome an impossibility. After all, it is still the default in international and UK law. 

The government has shown already that until no deal is ruled out entirely, it will continue to prepare. Operation Brock, the traffic management system for Kent in a no-deal scenario, was triggered by the government despite it having asked for an extension and the EU having said it would grant one. If 100% legal certainty is required before no-deal plans get switched off, then the government will need to be continuing at pace for January. 

But a general election makes that difficult. The date of departure from the EU is set to be the most contentious issue in a campaign. Civil service rules make running communication campaigns during elections extremely difficult – any normal reading of the election guidance rules would prevent another “Get ready for Brexit” campaign. The cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, will have some very contentious decisions to make in the coming weeks.  

Those difficult decisions will not just be about communications. Staff have been moved around Whitehall to gear up for the October deadline and a potential no deal. With that now ruled out and the likelihood of no deal receding, it becomes harder to justify the mass movement of officials away from policy areas like education. 

These no-deal Brexit preparations are a dry run for a future Boris Johnson deal 

Despite the repeated rewriting of the Brexit deadline, a great deal of the government’s no-deal plans are not entirely wasted effort – at least not if this government is returned after a general election. No deal in January is a possibility, but so is no deal in December 2020 – when the transition period is scheduled to end – or at the end of any transition extension. The vast majority of the work done in recent months will be relevant for those deadlines.  

And this work is not only relevant to a no-deal Brexit. The government is looking to agree a looser future relationship – in the form of a “best in class free trade agreement” – which, for the civil service, means preparations for a deal look very similar to those for no deal. The key systems and processes needed at the border, for example, will be the same. 

But readiness for Brexit does not start and stop in Whitehall – businesses and citizens must be ready too. Broken promises damage the government’s credibility. When (or perhaps if) changes actually happen, fatigue and mistrust could well mean that the country finds itself unprepared for Brexit day.