13 June 2019

The Prime Minister’s legacy should be making explicit why she thought a deal was better than no deal – and do it in time to affect the outcome of the Tory leadership race, argues Joe Owen.

A no deal Brexit wouldn’t be as damaging as many people think, but failing to leave the EU on 31 October would be a disaster for the Conservative Party. That seems to be a common line of thinking among the leading contenders to become the next Prime Minister.

As Tory leadership hopefuls prove their Brexit credentials to MPs and party members, their willingness to leave the EU without a deal in October is becoming a yardstick against which they’re being measured. Candidates like Dominic Raab and frontrunner Boris Johnson are keen to stress just how serious they are about walking away without a deal if Brussels doesn’t bend to their will by the autumn.

But there’s a risk that ramping up the rhetoric at a hustings only traps a future prime minister into the decision that needs to be made in October. No deal would be the biggest policy decision taken by a UK prime minister for a very long time, with consequences for trade, security, devolution, relations between the executive and Parliament and more. It's time to treat it with the seriousness it deserves, and offer it up for scrutiny.

Leaving without a deal in October is not just a policy decision, it’s a practical one

No deal isn’t just a negotiating tactic or a policy decision. It’s also a practical change on an unprecedented scale. Government will swallow whole huge areas of EU competence overnight, with new systems, processes and people required to carry out new responsibilities. The way businesses trade will change dramatically in some areas, with new demands for paperwork, licences and certificates to sit alongside new tariffs.

Those who paint a no deal Brexit as a simple matter of principle are overlooking the huge question of practicalities. The details of contingency plans and mitigations might not be top of the agenda now, but a new prime minister could find that they are thinking about little else from the moment they walk inside 10 Downing Street.

The UK’s readiness for no deal must feature in decision making

Despite two no deal deadlines having come and gone already, there is little known about just how ready the UK is for such an outcome. What is known does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

There have been over 10,000 pages of new laws created to update the UK statute book, but key bills – such as the Trade Bill – are stuck in a parliamentary stalemate. The Cabinet Secretary has said that, if all the Brexit bills aren’t passed, there are short-term workarounds in some areas but not necessarily all. What that means in practice is still anyone’s guess.

There are the new systems and processes that the Government has been busy building – it said there would be over 50 required in the technical notices that they published at the end of last year. But we don’t know whether that work has been completed. The closest we get is reports from the National Audit Office: in February it showed that the delivery of critical systems for managing the border was in serious doubt.

But preparedness is not just about government, it’s also about business. In the run up to the 29 March deadline, HM Revenue and Customs thought that four out of five traders had not even done the bare minimum to show they were thinking seriously about no deal when big changes were needed. But reports today suggest the country is even less prepared.

The Prime Minister should publish an assessment of what no deal means in practice and the extent of UK preparations

A handful of ministers past and present have said on the record that they think the UK is ready for no deal. This gives succour to the most gung-ho no-dealer, but there is little if any evidence to back up these statements. With no ministers to block publication, unlike departments across Whitehall, the Northern Irish Civil Service has published what it thinks no deal would mean in Northern Ireland – and it was not pretty.

More opportunities for scrutiny are essential. Within weeks of entering office a new prime minister, if serious about no deal, should ask the Cabinet Secretary to publish his best assessment of the UK’s readiness for no deal. And it should be done in conjunction with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which publicly assesses the delivery of the biggest and scariest projects in government. They could even write to the head of the National Audit Office, suggesting the NAO might want to produce their own overview.

But the current Prime Minister could make those requests first. After endlessly repeating that no deal was better than a bad deal, Theresa May clearly concluded that the opposite was true. So before the winner of the Conservative leadership contest enters Downing Street with a commitment to no deal, the Prime Minister’s final legacy could be to ensure that her successor is forced to confront the reality of what no deal in October really means.