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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:35pm

Is the government serious about a no-deal Brexit? It can’t decide

By Stephen Bush

The consistent through line in the government’s no-deal planning is that, when given a choice between serious planning for a no-deal Brexit and short-term popularity, it chooses the latter. The division is sometimes presented as being between Downing Street staff who came up with Boris Johnson via City Hall and those who came up with Boris Johnson via Vote Leave. The divide is highly imperfect but it illustrates an essential truth of government no-deal preparation: that the administration has yet to fully commit to it. 

One example is the future of free movement. Everyone who has seriously looked at no-deal, whether they regard it as desirable or undesirable, concludes that one thing you would do to weather the immediate days afterwards is to have as few checks at entry points as possible: you certainly would not end the free movement of people “on day one” as the British government has pledged to do. But ending free movement “on day one” is a popular policy with the voter pool that Johnson’s government has decided to fish in, so out it goes.

The biggest and most important element, however, is infrastructure. As Dominic Cummings, who, it is now widely briefed, is super-serious about taking us out of the EU by 31 October come what may, deal or no deal, wrote in his blog when discussing any form of Brexit that takes the UK out of the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU:

“This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of  EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade.”

Where is this infrastructure? The answer is that it is largely non-existent: the last government did not seriously deliver anything like the level of infrastructure required to even mitigate a no-deal Brexit and this one isn’t racing to fill the gap either.

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What both this government and the last one have done, at least, is announce large sums of money for government advertising. (Large, that is is, compared to the amount of money the government usually spends on advertising.) The latest announcement is a £100m advertising campaign with the slogan “Get Ready” on the steps that businesses, households and other organisations need to take to prepare for no deal. It’s a non-trivial amount of money for a government advertising campaign – it is more, even adjusting for inflation, than the last Labour government spent on its award-winning “Those who can, teach” campaign, and more than the Conservative government’s “Britain is GREAT” campaign, which the government credits with adding more than £1bn worth of extra tourism revenue to the British economy.

The big question is what will this advertising campaign’s content be? There is a choice to be made here about seriously preparing people for no deal and undermining support for it. Past performance indicates they will choose avoiding the latter over achieving the former.

It’s that same past performance that makes it hard to see the government’s no deal preparation as entirely serious, and easy to assume that Downing Street will ultimately find some excuse to bail out of no deal. The risk is that the stable equilibrium for the government is to do the bare minimum to prepare for no deal while simultaneously talking it up, making it a more popular destination among voters, at least in theory. The government’s ultimate unity position might yet to be to do a no-deal Brexit in an incompetent fashion.