THE UK Government observes, in a document detailing a £4.5 million information campaign including a “shock and awe” phase ahead of the Brexit transition period ending, that “Leave voters are less likely to prepare as they don’t believe in any potential negative consequences of leaving”.
One wonders how on earth Leavers might have arrived at that impression. Wait a minute though. Maybe it is because the Brexit camp, including many senior Tories, has been and continues to be at pains to bang the patriotic drum and give the impression that only good can come of this? Even though, of course, it continues to appear that quite the opposite is the case.
The £4.5m “transition campaign” contract award by the Cabinet Office to agency MullenLowe London was flagged by UK Government contract insight specialist Tussell. The details of the letter of appointment and campaign brief document, published online by the UK Government, give a fascinating insight into the Conservative administration’s aims with the information campaign. One of the aspects that is perhaps surprising, given the front put on the whole Brexit folly by the Government, is a seeming awareness that some groups will not like “overly positive” messaging over Brexit. This signals a greater degree of emotional intelligence than has been on public display, amid the jingoism.
As well as the perhaps surprisingly frank observation about Leave voters, the Cabinet Office’s campaign brief states: “Businesses, Hauliers and Traders are more likely to have voted remain and have a higher propensity to prepare than average, partly due to being concerned about the impact of EU Exit. As such, this audience will not respond well to overly positive messaging. Instead communications should look to reassure audiences by giving them the understanding of how they should operate within the transition period.”
Setting out the timetable for the different stages of the information campaign, the Cabinet Office document notes that July and August will be the “inform, nudge/shove, consequence and opportunity – take action now” period.
From September to November, it will turn to “shock and awe – consequences of not taking action”. It is difficult to see quite why there is a need for a military reference in this regard. Why not just spell out the need to highlight the major consequences for many of not taking action?
In any case, this phase of the campaign might be surprising for many. After all, many people could be forgiven for believing – given the Brexit-supporting Conservative Government’s long-time messaging on leaving the European single market when the transition period expires on December 31 – that there will be no consequences of note. Or certainly no adverse ones. Only benefits. Even if these benefits have so far remained entirely elusive, and the adverse consequences have been plain to see for all of those who have cared to look.
The December to January period will see a focus on “loss avoidance”. This looks like another interesting acknowledgement of the realities of the situation by the Cabinet Office.
January onwards will see the information campaign focus on “new opportunities”. Given these opportunities have failed to emerge thus far, four years on from the Brexit vote, it will be fascinating to see if they are suddenly going to materialise from January onwards. There is absolutely no sign that they will.
The document declares: “From January 2021 the campaign will enter its second phase, as we focus on the UK as a sovereign nation and on the opportunities ahead, for businesses and citizens.”
This is surely the least surprising aspect of the client brief, given the patriotic tub-thumping, we have seen and heard from the Brexit camp. Then again, we should remember the “loss avoidance” stage covers “December to January”.
The Cabinet Office document notes that, when polled at the end of January 2020, 74 per cent of UK adults said they had not done anything in preparation for the UK leaving the EU “as they don’t think they need to or expect any changes”. Only 8% had taken action and a further 9% planned to do so.
The document also observes that “73% of individuals say that now the UK has left the EU they want to see less media coverage of EU Exit, but this doesn’t mean they are not interested in the underlying issues or implications of leaving the EU”.
We should perhaps pause to observe that this wish to see less media coverage has manifested itself in a rather unsavoury way at times, with some seemingly determined to shut down any debate on the issue, arguing Brexit is done and on occasion slinging insults at those who would dare to talk about the actual consequences.
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The reality is the UK has so far left the EU in only the most technical of senses. Yes, there was a departure on January 31 but the transition period, which runs out on December 31, has kept everything as it was in terms of the benefits of European single market membership. Thank goodness it has, given the grim economic fallout from the human tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic.
It is after the UK is ripped out of the single market, something the Conservatives have confirmed in recent weeks that they will do on December 31 with or without a free-trade deal, that the realities of the situation will be felt.
Giving the “policy context” for the information campaign, the Cabinet Office document states: “The priority for the end of the Transition Period (by 31 December 2020) is for the UK to recover its political and economic independence and to seize the new opportunities as we move forward as a sovereign nation. Whether our relationship with the EU is like Canada’s or Australia’s, we will be leaving the single market and the customs union at the end of the year. This will bring some disruption. It will also bring great opportunities.”
The first bit is the same tiresome ideology we have been hearing from Conservative Brexiters for so long, a message that has been like ambrosia and nectar to the Leavers. It is interesting, however, to see the concession that there will be “some disruption”. Oh, and there is the reference again to the “great opportunities”. Where are they?
One of the goals of the “readiness programme” is that “the EU is clear that the UK has made the necessary preparations to leave the transition without a further negotiated outcome”. This chimes with a seeming recent preoccupation on the part of the UK Government about what the EU thinks.
We have read this week of potential for Liam Fox, the former international trade secretary, to return to a big political job as the UK’s candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation.
This is the same Dr Fox who, back in summer 2017, said a free-trade deal with the EU “should be one of the easiest in human history” to secure, noting the talks were starting from a position of zero tariffs and “maximum regulatory equivalence”, observing this meant UK and EU rules and laws are “exactly the same”. He added: “The only reason that we wouldn’t come to a free and open agreement is because politics gets in the way of economics.”
Since then, the UK Government has spent much time asserting its sovereignty and seemingly highlighting its opposition to being bound by EU regulations.
Is that politics getting in the way of things?
The UK Government continues to look like it is going round and round in circles in its talks with the EU. It remains impossible to escape the notion that it wants the trade benefits of single-market membership without the obligations. And it is difficult to shake the impression that this particular Conservative Government does not care if there is a trade deal or not at the end of all of this.
There have been reports in recent days about how disruption could be reduced by phasing in controls on EU goods entering the UK. But this rather misses the point. The short-term disruption would be a problem. But it is tiny relative to the huge costs over months, years and decades from the loss of the economic benefits of truly frictionless trade and free movement of people.
And a £4.5m advertising campaign is not going to change that.