06 September 2019

An early general election would cause massive problems for no-deal preparations, argues Joe Owen. 

If a general election is called before a Brexit extension is secured, then the government would still need to continue preparing for no deal. Because if the government has not asked for an extension, and the EU has not agreed to one, then no deal remains the default outcome on 31 October.

That no-deal preparation would not be ruled out by the normal election guidance, because essential business of government continues and no-deal preparations would surely count as such. But preparation would be hamstrung – in a way that would have serious repercussions for readiness.

An election will mean the country is less ready for no-deal Brexit in October

Third party readiness is the government’s biggest worry for no deal. Most businesses and citizens are not prepared, and an election in the run up to 31 October immediately constrains the government’s ability to improve that picture.

Government preparations can continue behind the scenes, but huge swathes of external communications and announcements would be curtailed. The government’s multi-pound 'Get ready for Brexit' campaign would have to be stopped during a campaign in which Brexit was the central issue, and any new or changed no-deal policies – for example, any change to the no-deal tariff schedule – could not be announced.

Many businesses will also take an election as a cue or an excuse to defer further preparations – not least because so many options will be back on the table. The more uncertainty there is, the more reason to avoid committing money and time to an outcome that may not happen.

Six weeks of preparations would be lost if an election were held on, or around, 15 October. It is madness to think that the UK could make up this time in the remaining fortnight between election day and exit day. 

Ministers can’t both be on a battle bus and preparing for no-deal Brexit

It is barely conceivable that ministers could keep up the routine of daily meetings on exit preparations while also being out on the campaign trail. And at one point or other, all ministers would need to be knocking on doors and trying to secure votes.   

No deal planning under this government is based around a relentless schedule of meetings which attempt to identify issues and drive response. But cabinet committee meetings can't be held when committee members are dropping leaflets in letterboxes.

The opposition would rightly demand access to information and consultation on decisions

Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett has already said the opposition would want briefings on no-deal preparations and Operation Yellowhammer if an election campaign took place at the same time as no-deal preparations. It is perfectly reasonable for an opposition party, which might find themselves in office within weeks, to want access to this information. Regardless of whether it would want a no-deal Brexit or not, it is still possible that a Labour government could be refused an extension from the EU and be left to face the consequences.

Likewise, any controversial decision needs to be cleared with the opposition. That includes awarding any contracts – to ferry companies, for example – that might preempt future spending decisions.

The risk for all involved is that this information becomes a political football within the campaign.

The principles that guide the civil service in an election must be maintained

There are vital reasons why restrictions on official activity during an election exist. They ensure that the civil service is kept out of political controversy and they maintain its impartiality – which is central to the Civil Service Code. They keep options open for an incoming government. But they also ensure that government resources are not used to give the incumbent government any electoral advantage.

However, it is possible these circumstances will require the guidance to say something different on communications. Restrictions for local government elections are set out on a statutory basis and restrictions on referendums are covered in the primary legislation, but election guidance issued by the Cabinet Office can be changed by the government.

But although this might be tempting to some in Number 10, existing guidance should not be entirely set aside. The government’s opponents accused it of pushing the boundaries on such restrictions during both the EU referendum and the Scottish referendum – which would have been very uncomfortable for civil servants. General elections have clear spending restrictions on all political parties. Being able to use, or even being seen to be using, the government machine to assist the incumbent government’s campaign would be a massive problem.

This government wants the UK to ‘Get ready for Brexit' on 31 October. But a general election campaign before that deadline has passed and an extension is secured will inevitably disrupt the government’s preparations for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Civil service no-deal preparation would be restricted in the weeks running up to polling day, and ministers would be pounding the pavements rather than preparing in their departments.

A snap election campaign just does not mix with no-deal preparations if the October 31 deadline is still in play.