Sun 17 January 2021

Boris Johnson’s Government isn’t prepared to risk the reputation of Brexit, no matter what the cost, reports Sam Bright

The Government has instructed local areas not to use adverts that might reflect badly on Brexit, Byline Times can reveal.

This week, the Government issued a “written communications toolkit” to local administrations, with guidance about what they should say to individuals and businesses about the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

The document contains a range of generic advice that local areas should communicate to residents, such as the need to check the validity of their passports, and for exporters to apply for relevant licenses.

Notably, however, the Government instructs areas not to use messages or adverts that suggest a negative outcome at the end of the transition period. “Focus on positive outcomes and motivate readers to act by clearly communicating what will happen if they take action,” the document reads. An example is included, relating to exporters.

It is recommended that local authorities say:

To continue to trade with the EU after 31 December 2020, you will need to follow new rules for exporting, including changes to processes and licensing.

As opposed to:

You will not be able to continue trading with the EU after 31 December 2020, if you don’t follow new rules for exporting, including changes to processes and licensing.

The Project Above the People

This emphasis on positive Brexit messaging seems to be a political rather than a practical decision – placing the reputation of the project above the interests of individuals and businesses.

Indeed, logically, negative messages carry more urgency and gravity. If a business owner is told they will lose trade and money if they don’t register for an export license, they will pay attention.

Take anti-smoking adverts, for example. They feature visceral, negative slogans predicting cancer and infertility, if the individual doesn’t stop immediately. They do not say, “You will be able to carry on living if you quit smoking,” because that doesn’t provide sufficient motivation. I smoke yet I am still alive; so why should I stop? I don’t have an export license yet I can currently trade with Europe; so why should I register for one?

In order to change their actions, people need to tangibly comprehend the negative consequences of not acting. But of course that would involve admitting that Brexit has negative consequences.

This optimism stricture could therefore explain why many businesses are still not prepared for the end of the transition period. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, for example, understands that the Government has failed to reach a third of businesses that believed in October that the transition period would be extended. These firms could be set for a rude awakening on 1 January, the committee concludes, due to the Government’s failure to communicate.

Indeed, research published by the Institute of Directors in October found that 45% of all firms were not prepared for Brexit, with 24% saying that were unsure if they would be by the end of the year.

This confusion has of course been compounded by a general lack of direction and clarity in Brexit negotiations. The Government infamously spent £100 million last year telling firms to prepare for a potential ‘no deal’ departure, while publicly saying an “oven ready” deal would comfortably put the Brexit issue to bed.

There have also been calls for the end of the transition period to be delayed, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps believing this policy would be adopted by any sensible government, 43% of small firms said in October they thought an extension would be agreed.

The Vote Leave establishment has for years propounded a Brexit fantasy featuring vast benefits and few drawbacks. It seems the Government isn’t prepared to revise this mythology, even it means businesses aren’t prepared for our oncoming rupture from the continent.

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