National Audit Office warns that £100m Brexit campaign is failing to resonate

Many ads still showing UK is set to leave EU on 31 October.

'Get ready for Brexit': out-of-home activity include executions at train stations
'Get ready for Brexit': out-of-home activity include executions at train stations

There is mounting concern that the government's £100m "Get ready for Brexit" campaign will prove to be a waste of time and money, with the National Audit Office warning that it may have "limited impact".

The NAO report was published amid growing political uncertainty over the timescale by which the UK might leave the European Union.

Concerns raised

An assessment by the NAO on Britain's preparedness for Brexit, released last week, stated: "On 1 September 2019, the government launched a major communications campaign to help individuals and businesses prepare for EU exit, including newspaper and television adverts, improved guidance and direct engagement with industry.

"However, at this late stage and with ongoing uncertainty about the prospect of no deal on 31 October, this may have limited impact." 

The report highlights the uncertainty that surrounds Brexit, stating that "it is impossible to know exactly what would happen at the border in the event of no deal". 

And the cross-government Border Delivery Group has warned that a key priority of having a "comprehensive programme of trader communications" is rated red, it said.

This means that successful delivery appears to be unachievable, with major issues that do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. 

The NAO report said: "The government is heavily dependent on third parties being well-informed and making changes to their systems and behaviours. This includes traders, hauliers and passengers.

"If these groups are not prepared for the controls which EU member states are likely to impose, this may lead to queues at the border."

Under scrutiny

The "Get ready for Brexit" campaign was described by Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore last week as "mystifying in its utter uselessness".

She added: "This is all billed as a public information campaign but it is devoid of information and is simply publicly funded government propaganda."

— David Hemsted (@davidhemsted) October 22, 2019

The government has yet to publish details of how much it has spent on the campaign since it was launched last month.

TV and radio spots, which were created by Engine, with Manning Gottlieb OMD handling media, are still being broadcast, stating that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October.

The dedicated website makes no mention of the fact that the EU is considering granting an extension, stating: "If the withdrawal agreement is not signed by the UK and the EU, the UK could still leave with no deal on 31 October 2019."

Failing to deliver

The major flaw in the campaign is that its core message is calling on people to prepare for something that is increasingly in doubt. 

The years since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 have been punctuated by missed deadlines and extensions to the withdrawal process. 

Failure to deliver on Brexit has already forced one prime minister from office and Boris Johnson's future in the role could also depend on the outcome.

Change of tone

Earlier this week, it emerged that the "Get ready for Brexit" campaign had quietly dropped the message of 31 October as the date Britain is due to leave the EU, with its website promoting a more cautious message: "We could still leave with no deal on 31 October."

And last night Johnson's quest to take the UK out of the EU by the end of this month suffered a fatal setback, when his timetable to get the withdrawal agreement bill through parliament was rejected by MPs.

Political turmoil

Although Johnson had promised to pull the bill if he lost the vote on the timing of the process, he instead opted to "pause" proceedings pending the EU's formal decision on granting an extension.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has already stated that he is recommending that EU leaders grant one.

In an attempt to break the impasse in parliament, Johnson has repeated his desire to have a general election, but this is something that he cannot force through without parliamentary support.

For all the political complexities, the bottom line is that the Brexit deadline has shifted yet again – in what is a political moving target – and parliament remains deadlocked over the issue.

Government response

The Cabinet Office has been approached for comment.

In its latest factsheet on the campaign, released earlier this month, it stated: "The government's policy is that the UK leaves the EU on 31 October. It is the job of civil servants to support ministers in delivering that policy and to help ministers communicate that policy factually."

The factsheet added: "It remains the case in law that the UK is set to leave the EU on 31 October 2019. This is the date fixed by the EU Treaties and by Act of Parliament." 

A version of this story first appeared on PRWeek