As businesses around the country prepare for a no-deal Brexit their advisors need to come clean about the questions they cannot answer.
If the Prime Minister ignores the Benn Act, what happens at five minutes past midnight on the 1st of November? Who will actually tell the border force and the customs officials what to do? As with the submarine captains on the day after nuclear strikes - is there an 'in case of emergency’ letter from the PM and what on earth does it say? At the moment, the answer to those question is "sort of" and "we're not really sure". And that’s fine if you are just an interested bystander or a member of the Westminster Village, but if you have to stick a label on your products for export, or are awaiting imported parts due to arrive after the 31st October, this is an increasingly urgent problem.
What is lost in the soap opera of everyday political reporting is the potential for some very practical problems on both sides of the EU/UK border in the next four weeks. Aside from the constitutional debate that had to go all the way to the Supreme Court last week, the question of who decides is not clear. Decisions are made by those who turn up, as they saying goes. For the officials in charge of our customs and border who turn up to work on 1st November - how will they know what rules to implement - the old ones or new ones, and if new ones, which ones? Even more practically, are there enough officers on duty to clear through the backlog that builds up if/when people get their forms wrong?
And for the importers and exporters - what do you do about goods being shipped in the next four weeks that require a customs declaration, which may have changed by the time they arrive in Dover or Heathrow, Frankfurt or Calais? HM Revenue and Customs has been communicating with businesses about the new customs processes they will need to follow if there is no deal, but as the Government’s own “Operation Yellowhammer” assessment shows many businesses are still unaware of the changes they will face. Many trade associations have also written to Government pointing out the manifest gaps in current preparedness.
The current deadline for the PM to seek a second extension to Article 50 is the 19th October. The Prime Minister has today unveiled his “final proposal” although much of its substance has already been rejected by the EU, if leaks are to be believed. So if there is no new deal, and we are headed for no-deal, we are back to more questions.
Let’s say on the 20th October, the Prime Minister is arrested for ignoring the Benn Act (also controversially dubbed the ‘Surrender Act’.) Will he resign? Will he nominate Dominic Raab his de-facto Deputy to take the reins? Who has the authority to communicate with the EU? How long will it take for the justice system to decide whether the Executive or Parliament has supremacy? Will the anti-no-deal Parliamentary alliance go for a vote of no-confidence and try to install an alternative Prime Minister (a process that could take 14 days, which would take us past Brexit Day.) In the meantime, who has the authority to tell those officials and businesses on the literal front line of a no-deal or an extension what to do?
Given there are allegedly three warring camps within Number 10, let alone those outside, the likelihood of a single clear set of instructions emerging in the next 29 days seems remote. There are so many code names for planning that some are now starting to sound like a joke (Operation Brock? Operation Snow Bunting? Seriously?) It may be that only Michael Gove, as Minister in charge of no-deal planning, has any idea of the complexity we’re talking about. As a former SpAd myself I can tell you a secret - things inside Government are rarely as strategic and organised as might be assumed from the outside. It is cock up over conspiracy 99 times out of 100.
This confusion has an unedifying side effect in the public affairs industry. It has turned some of us into snake oil salesmen. The idea that - for any amount of money - I could tell you what Boris and Dominic will do next is absurd because they don’t know themselves. The idea that eminent former SpAds, Ambassadors or Ministers can tell you what - if any - position can be agreed between Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats about their next parliamentary manoeuvres is equally bunkum. The suggestion that anyone could anticipate the highest Court in our land is made nonsense by the shock that last week’s judgement produced.
So this political advisor’s advice right now is not to buy political advice about Brexit, because it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. If you (or your board) are asking for certainty in these uncertain times you’re asking to be lied to. Any advisor with integrity would admit that they simply do not know what is coming next, and clients should judge us on that.