'Get Ready for Brexit' campaign had little effect, says watchdog

Boris Johnson’s government spent £46m on a “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign in October, but demonstrated little evidence it left the public better prepared, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.

The National Audit Office said ministers chose to run a £100m campaign – the most expensive of four options – to tell all UK businesses and individuals how they should prepare for leaving the EU. The campaign was launched as the 31 October deadline for leaving the EU approached.

But the evidence shows that the proportion of UK citizens who reported that they had looked or started to look for information, did not notably change, auditors said.

Auditors said the numbers of people looking for information about Brexit did not notably change as a result – ranging from 32% and 37% during the campaign, to 34% when it stopped, having spent just under half of the allotted money.

The campaign was halted three days before the UK was supposed to leave after the EU granted another extension.

Does 31 January change anything?

Friday will mark the start of what is likely to be an uphill battle to get a trade deal done by the end of the year, not to mention all the non-trade issues that must also be resolved including security and intelligence cooperation, fisheries, data, education and research collaboration.

Although everyday life will remain the same and the UK will remain in the single market and the customs union until the end of the year as part of transition arrangements, the withdrawal agreement will be a legally binding international treaty that comes into force. It carries sanctions for any “backsliding or half measures”, as Michel Barnier’s adviser Stefaan de Rynck has pointed out.

What happens next?

We know little of the plans for the negotiations, and parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit has been restricted. The House of Lords EU committee has invited but failed to get Stephen Barclay to appear to explain the next stages, sources say.

While business has been clamouring for the government to reveal its Brexit vision beyond the joint aspiration of a tariff-free, quota-free deal, little is known about Boris Johnson’s specific goals.

When will negotiations begin?

Expect plenty of sabre-rattling on both sides, but negotiations are unlikely to begin before March. The European commission kicked off its 30-stage process in agreeing its negotiating goals before Christmas and these are expected to be signed off by member states at a meeting on 25 February.

Who will be negotiating for the UK?

David Frost, who replaced Oliver Robbins as the chief negotiator, is expected to lead a team of about 30 calling on expert knowledge from civil servants and trade experts. Some have suggested the government should hire as many as possible from the Canadian team that sealed Canada’s new deal with the EU. 

What about Northern Ireland?

This remains the single most contentious part of the Brexit deal because of the checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. De Rynck said in January that the EU and the UK would have to be “very disciplined” if they were to get a new system for trading in Northern Ireland ready for 31 December.

Brussels and Irish political leaders are already alarmed by Johnson’s repeated declarations that there will be no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, even though some of these will be mandatory.

Helen McEntee, Ireland’s minister for European affairs has contradicted him directly, telling Sky News’s Sophy Ridge: “There will be no checks 

Northern Ireland businesses have urged the government to set up a working group urgently so that the detail of the checks can be determined quickly.

Lisa O’Carroll Brexit correspondent

The report increases concerns over the government’s spending leading up to the 31 October deadline set by the prime minister to leave the EU with or without a deal.

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It comes as the government prepares a new “Ready to Trade” campaign on 1 February, the day after the UK is due to formally leave the EU.

Auditors found the Cabinet Office’s business case did not demonstrate increased impact for the proposed spending on the campaign compared with lower-cost alternatives. Auditors said it was “not clear” it left people “significantly better prepared”.

The Cabinet Office, which is in charge of Brexit preparations, said it had to launch a campaign in the run-up to the October deadline or risk “significant and unnecessary disruption”.

The department estimated the campaign reached 99.8% of the population, with every member of the public having the opportunity to see the range of billboard, print, TV and online adverts 55 times.

The campaign encouraged people and businesses to visit the government’s main gov.uk website to answer questions and receive advice on preparing for the UK’s exit from the bloc.

Among those specifically targeted were British citizens who were intending to travel to Europe in the days and weeks after Brexit and businesses that exported to the EU.

Gareth Davies, the NAO’s chief executive, said: “At short notice, the Cabinet Office successfully corralled multiple government departments to work together effectively and launched this complex campaign at great speed.

“However, it is not clear that the campaign resulted in the public being significantly better prepared.”

In response, the government said the watchdog had acknowledged the campaign increased public awareness of the action it needed to take to be ready to leave the EU.

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“Not undertaking the campaign would have risked significant and unnecessary disruption to businesses and to people’s lives,” a spokesperson for the cabinet office said.

Responding to the report, the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said it was “a colossal waste of taxpayers money” which was effectively part of the Conservative election campaign.

“This damning report shows what we knew all along: the Conservative government’s ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign was an expensive propaganda stunt designed ahead of the election to help no one but Boris Johnson stay in Number 10.

“Once again the Tories are misusing their powers at the expense of our democracy. Given how poorly this campaign performed it should be referred to the Electoral Commission and be included as part of the Tory general election spend,” she said.

The UK will leave the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday 31 January.



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