How serious is the Johnson administration about a no-deal Brexit, really? That’s the question that arises when you look at the gap between what the new government says about Brexit and what it actually does.
Looking at what the government says about a no-deal Brexit, you’d conclude that it’s pretty serious: certainly, a great deal has been briefed out about how serious the government is. It’s true to say that most civil servants, even those who privately think that the new government is a disaster and its Brexit approach will end in catastrophe, feel that they have more direction from the centre. Special advisers, even those who live in fear that they will be purged by Dominic Cummings, also sing the praises of a more communicative regime. (To give you an idea of the difference, by the time the government was a fortnight old, essentially every special adviser in it had spoken to Johnson’s Downing Street more than they had ever communicated with May’s.)
But if you look at what the government is actually doing, it is far from clear. Everyone – even people who are relatively sanguine about a no-deal Brexit – thinks that one of the ways you would ameliorate the difficulties at ports is to have a permissive regime at entry points into the country. Yet the government has claimed that it would end free movement on 31 October, which would only add to the logistical difficulties around a no-deal Brexit.
There is no reason to do this on day one of a no-deal Brexit – but there is every reason to claim that you would, as ending the free movement of people is popular with the voters that the government is hoping to win over at a general election.
Similarly, there has been a lot of noise about money being made available to departments to prepare for no deal, but there has been far less serious spending of that money. Now Sajid Javid has cancelled his first big speech as Chancellor while announcing that he will bring forward the spending review to September.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make a series of spending decisions before our final relationship with the European Union is known. If we have a no-deal Brexit and it is as disruptive as predicted, then that will throw out a lot of the assumptions and plans made in a pre-Brexit spending review. Equally, if the government’s willingness to entertain a no-deal Brexit results in a different deal with the European Union, the government’s position will also be significantly altered.
The only argument to move the spending round forward is in order to defuse a series of problems across the public realm in order to fight an election. And as with the rest of the government’s Brexit approach, it is far more consistent with a party that is serious about winning an election in the middle of October than it is about leaving the European Union at the end.