The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, today launched the first 25 sector-specific policy documents, outlining how the government intends to protect businesses and individuals in the event that the UK and the EU are unable to agree a deal on the exit terms before we leave the EU in March 2019. (In practice, a deal needs to be struck before December this year in order to allow ratification by Member States).
The speech was a strong performance by Mr Raab. Confident, positive, but acknowledging the challenges and providing about as much detail as can be expected, given that the UK government is only one side in a complex, politically-charged negotiation. But will the speech inspire the confidence it intends to, especially confidence in Mr Raab’s claim that no-deal preparations are only a backstop because a deal is “by far the most likely outcome”?
Whether the claims are believed depends on which audiences we are considering. So far, predictably, there is little evidence that UK politicians and the media are swayed – the Labour Party issued a (probably pre-written) critique, and media outlets have responded in line with their long-standing Brexit editorial views. The impact of the speech on middle-ground Tory MPs remains to be seen, and their views will be crucial in getting the final deal (or no deal) accepted by Parliament.
Ostensibly though, the main audience for Mr Raab’s speech is UK businesses and the UK public. It will be interesting to see polling in the coming days on whether the speech has reassured them. In many ways, no-deal preparation offers a chance to break from the stale “Remainer versus Leaver” divide. The question should be, regardless of whether a business or an individual supported Brexit, do you now feel the government is competently handling preparations for Brexit? The answer to that is important for Mr Raab’s standing, but absolutely crucial for the Prime Minister.
A secondary audience for the speech is overseas. EU Member States, not just the European Commission, will have a say on the final deal. In the UK we have been focused on whether our Parliament (especially enough Conservative MPs) will accept a deal. But there are 27 other Member States who must be satisfied too. Some of these governments may have to consult their parliaments, rather than just deciding at an executive level. Mr Raab intends to show this audience that the government can, and will, walk away from agreeing a bad deal and choose the no-deal option instead.
Raab gave a strong performance, backed up by detailed government policy documents. Whether the key audiences are satisfied will probably depend largely on their broader perceptions of the government’s competence, and indeed their views on any government’s ability to control what happens after we leave the EU.