Richard North, 05/08/2019  

As the silly season drags on into August, the political agenda gets thinner and thinner, while that on offer seems to consist largely of reheated statements on matters that have long lost their bite.

At least the legacy media has a broken dam in Derbyshire and a brace of mass shootings in the United States to keep it busy, allowing it to scale down its Brexit coverage, just churning over the occasional derivative piece to keep the subject live.

If the media and politicians were honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that a no-deal exit on 31 October is pretty much a certainty. As long as Johnson is determined to pursue that course, there is precious little anyone can do to stop it.

That gives us 87 days left to speculate on the outcome of a no-deal, something which the legacy media is particularly bad at doing, with government and politicians not far behind in the prediction stakes. Generally, they have little idea of what might transpire, which is hardly surprising given that this is an issue where uncertainty is the dominant feature.

That, however, doesn't stop the likes of the Mail on Sunday churning out a derivative piece purporting to tell us what a no-deal Brexit "really means".

Setting out our future in 22 points, what strikes one about this exposition is that everything laid out seems to have been the subject of a legacy media story at one time or another. This paper certainly doesn't believe in original research and does not reach beyond the confines of its own industry to gather information.

The narrow perspective is shared by most of the legacy media and probably explains why they get it wrong so often and will continue to do so. Their inability to step outside their comfort zone means that their horizons will always be limited to what the herd has already approved.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, The Times finds that small companies "are still largely in the dark about trading relations with the European Union". This, it says, is despite government promises, apparently heedless of the idea that it is as much the media's job to inform as it is the government's.

Pinning the blame firmly on government, the paper harps back to one of Johnson's numerous promises during his first speech when he assumed the role of prime minister. Then, he claimed that "business will be ready" for leaving the European Union, which has prompted, we are told, "some hollow laughs from those who know the state of preparedness among small companies".

The reality, according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) – which itself has never really been in the forefront of the information game - is that most of its members are "desperately under-prepared" for the no-deal exit that looks increasingly likely.

In my experience of the FSB as a one-time active member, and columnist of EU issues for its monthly magazine, is that you would have to go a long, long way to find a group of people so ill-informed, backed by an executive which seemed to specialise in burying their collective heads deep in the sand.

Nevertheless, The Times thinks they can hardly be blamed for their lack of preparedness, a view with which one must have some slight sympathy if one accepts that there is no clarity on exactly what they are supposed to be planning for.

The crucial issue is the basis on which Britain will work with its largest trading partner, and Johnson's determination to pursue a no-deal Brexit notwithstanding, the attitude among many companies has been: why waste time and money? And the fact that the government advice that has been provided to date has been pretty vague hasn't helped.

But then, as long as Mrs May was at odds with parliament, and dependent on a vote which would allow the UK to move to a "no change" transitional period, this was always going to be the case. Only since a no-deal has become a reality does it really make sense to start preparing – inasmuch as this is a realistic exercise.

Nevertheless, if we're now to believe what we're told, steps are being taken to address the inertia. Of the £2.1 billion that has been siphoned off from the unwilling taxpayer to fund no-deal preparations, £108 million has been set aside to "promote and support businesses to ensure they are ready for Brexit". This, we are informed, will include a "national programme of business readiness and helping exporters to prepare for, and capitalise on, new opportunities".

Businesses will doubtless be pleased to hear that they will also be included in a £138 million public information campaign to "get ready to leave", handled by the Cabinet Office – presumably under the tutelage of Mr Gove. The business department has been handed ten of the £108 million and the remainder will be handled by the Treasury on schemes that have yet to be confirmed.

Beyond that, predictably, details are thin on the ground – although this may be a reflection of the fact that government is as much in the dark as to the consequences of its own actions as most of the rest of us. This we saw with the recent leaked predictions which suggested that there were huge gaps in official understanding.

Therefore, the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, when they met Andrea Leadsom, the new business secretary, last week, should not have been surprised that they gained no further insight as to how the information budget might be spent. The most likely explanation for that is that Leadsom herself didn't know.

In a rather naïve comment, Martin McTague, the FSB's policy and advocacy chairman, nevertheless is bleating to the media that: "We urgently need more information about what this money is actually for", asking "What kind of support will it fund? How many small businesses will be able to access it? When will they be able to access it?"

Probably, those are the very questions that government might be asking itself, with little expectation of finding the answers. But the FSB, if nothing else, is always keen to suck up the occasional handout and has some ideas on how it could use the money.

Craig Beaumont, director of external affairs at the FSB, said that plans for a communications campaign to encourage companies to prepare may convince some to make a start, but he warned: "It is not enough to simply shout at small businesses. It must point to a set of impressive small-business-friendly online resources that can help a small business to work out what it can do to prepare for no-deal on 31 October".

The FSB is then joined by the Institute of Directors – another information vacuum – to ask for "Brexit vouchers" – a scheme that would allow companies to fund advice tailored to their operations.

The FSB suggests a value of between £1,000 and £3,000 to help people to "buy-in some expertise to help them to change their business processes". It expects specialist legal, staffing and compliance advice to be the starting point for the kind of help that companies will need.

However, apart from providing a bonanza for lawyers and snake-oil business consultants, it is hard to see what this might achieve. Mainly, it will be the blind leading the blind, as the detailed consequences of a no-deal Brexit will continue to be difficult to predict.

Another idea is financial support for stockpiling, helping small firms cover the cost of booking warehouse space, which will be expensive and in short supply. The FSB also wants the government to ask the big banks to show leniency if business customers struggle in the wake of a no-deal, and suggests that HMRC could give those hit by trade disruption extra time to pay their tax bills.

Another practical step, the FSB thinks, would be automatically to issue companies with the Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) numbers that are required for trade with the European Union. Perhaps the Federation isn't aware that the numbers must be issued by EU Member States – but then one wouldn't expect the FSB to know things that might be useful to its members.

Perhaps the man who has it right is Tony Thompson, who runs a haulage company that runs to France daily from Dover. He is "fed up with this massive issue dominating our industry and causing problems", even before we leave. Thompson refuses to spend on planning for something that "may or may not happen", arguing that, "even if it happens, nobody knows what form it will take". He thus asks: "What can you prepare for?"

His view of the business support exercise is that it is "propaganda". He expects the money to be "spent on superficial projects, which will account for nothing, except maybe making the government look like they're doing something".

It might not be too cynical to assert that "looking like they're doing something" is what governments do. And with something like Brexit, where the information is spread so thin, there is little else that it is equipped to do.

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