LAST Friday, at the end of a week in which the UK Government had launched its Brexit public information campaign, a think-tank was spelling out the realities of the situation for businesses, including the danger that the loss of frictionless trade would make some unviable.

The sobering assessment of the situation from the Institute for Government struck a sharply contrasting tone from the Conservatives’ “The UK’s new start: let’s get going” campaign message.

And the think-tank had some good advice for the UK Government. Whether or not this will be ignored, as so much advice relating to Brexit from so many experts has been, remains to be seen.

In this context, it is perhaps worth observing the Government’s Brexit information campaign is being driven by the Cabinet Office. And it is probably also worth remembering that, ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote, Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove declared: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

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The Institute for Government notes on its website: “We provide rigorous research and analysis… to explore the key challenges facing government. We offer a space for discussion and fresh thinking to help senior politicians and civil servants think differently and bring about change.”

Highlighting the grim reality, the think-tank last Friday observed with the launch of its research on the scale of the task left for UK business and government that “the coronavirus crisis has left many companies in a worse position to prepare for Brexit than they were ahead of a possible no-deal outcome in 2019”.

It is worth keeping in mind the challenges posed by such a no-deal scenario last year were rightly viewed as huge by many. Thankfully, at that point, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Brexit-minded ministers were being kept in check by Parliament. This crucial moderating influence was sadly lost with Mr Johnson's decisive General Election victory.

The Institute for Government report finds that “many businesses are poorly positioned for the end of the transition period on 31 December”. This is the transition period which the UK Government has made so much of having refused to extend by the deadline of July 1.

The report by the think-tank, which works to “make government more effective”and is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, also finds that “however well businesses prepare, the new friction at the EU–UK border could lead to major disruption, will force many of them to change their operations fundamentally and could even make some unviable”.

This statement should surely ring alarm bells with a Conservative Government which hopefully wishes to see as strong a UK economic recovery as possible, not least to mitigate the awful impact of the coronavirus pandemic on unemployment.

Laying out the reality of where we are, the Institute for Government says: “Coronavirus has starved firms of cash and left many struggling to stay afloat. This has derailed their Brexit preparations, preventing them from investing in new customs processes or stockpiling to protect themselves against disruption to supply chains. Smaller businesses have been particularly badly affected.”

This is the simple truth of the matter.

And it chimes with the findings of a survey published by the Institute of Directors last week. Of the 978 company directors in the UK polled by the IoD in late June, only one-quarter said their organisations were prepared fully for the end of the Brexit transition period.

Publishing the findings of its report, the Institute for Government also observes: “Government preparations have advanced at a slower pace due to the crisis, with vital components of Britain’s post-Brexit border arrangements still not ready. The lack of clarity over what – if any – trade deal might emerge from negotiations, and the measures the UK will take to mitigate disruption has also meant that businesses are hesitant to start preparations.”

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The IoD found that nearly nine in 10 UK business leaders believe that a trade deal with the European Union is important for the economy as it recovers. Even among the portion of directors who favoured being able to diverge from EU rules, 71 per cent said that reaching a deal was important to the economy.

The Institute for Government’s recommendations on Brexit, based on its thorough and expert analysis, are eminently sensible. The think-tank’s paper recommends that the UK Government “takes account of the impact of Brexit when finalising its economic response to coronavirus, provides targeted support for the least prepared businesses [and] clearly communicates what mitigations or unilateral measures it will put in place”.

The clock is ticking ever more loudly.

Talks between the UK and EU on the future relationship have continued this week but there is no sign at all of a breakthrough, after months and months of the negotiations going round and round in circles. The mood music seems to become more ominous, as the UK Government continues, while claiming it wants a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU, to bang the drum about how it is prepared for a no-deal exit from the European single market. It will surprise many to hear they are prepared. That is not really the impression you get. Just as importantly, should the Conservative Government not be thinking a bit more about the impact on businesses and households of such a calamitous outcome, particularly in these straitened times?

It was Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, who trotted out this tiresome UK Government line – about wanting an agreement but being absolutely ready for a no-deal exit – on Wednesday.

He told London-based radio station LBC: “We would like a deal but we are absolutely prepared for a no deal.”

That is nice for the Government if it thinks it is prepared. But maybe it should ask households and businesses already struggling with the grim economic fall-out from the human tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic how they feel about that breezy approach to a no-deal departure, while setting out for them the huge economic damage shown by the Theresa May government’s forecasts from this scenario. Of course, even with a deal there is major damage.

The UK’s chief negotiator in the talks on the future relationship with the EU, David Frost, yesterday declared “we must face the possibility” of a deal not being reached.

While Mr Frost signalled a belief there could still be a deal in September, his statement and the thoughts of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday, as the latest round of talks ended, underlined continuing huge differences on the big issues of the level playing field and fisheries.

It was interesting, but not surprising at all, to read reports this week that the UK Government side is not anticipating sealing a trade deal with the US by the year-end.

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This means it will have nothing to flaunt ahead of the end of the transition period, when the UK will lose its extremely valuable single-market membership, and with it the huge benefits of free movement of people and truly frictionless trade.

This was inevitable, given the length of time trade deals take to agree, if indeed they can ultimately even be sealed, although you could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise given the enthusiasm for a US agreement emanating from the likes of Mr Johnson and Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss.

The US deal would of course, even if secured, at best provide economic benefits that were tiny relative to what the UK will lose when it leaves the European single market under any scenario. And who knows if the costs to society of any US deal might outweigh these tiny benefits.

A poll by Survation on behalf of Edinburgh-based Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research for the new “eu+me” campaign, published this week, shows a very decisive majority of people in Scotland, 62%, would vote to rejoin the EU in any future referendum.

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Mr Johnson, given his supposed focus on Scotland this week with his visit north of the Border, might want to reflect on that. But the reality is, sadly, that nothing will stop the Tory Brexiters’ separatist agenda on Europe as they drive forward their foolhardy plans to exit the single market in the wake of their technical Brexit on January 31. Mr Johnson should also reflect on the clear overall view of people in Scotland that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic would be less bad if the UK were part of the EU. The poll also found 65% of people in Scotland were sorry the UK had voted to leave the EU. This is in stark contrast to the “je ne regrette rien” stance of the Tory Brexiters.

It is worth noting though that, while the Government’s own public information campaign with its posters of smiling workers might contrast starkly with the tone of the Institute for Government report, the Cabinet Office published a 206-page document on “The UK’s new start” launch day.

The very length of this document, entitled “The Border with the European Union: Importing and Exporting Goods”, highlights the degree of disruption, increased obligations, and bureaucracy ahead as controls are placed on the movement of goods to and from the EU.

The Conservative Government might continue to paint single-market exit, and even a no-deal departure as no particularly big things. Of course, this whole exercise is being driven by ideology amid a surge in British nationalist fervour among arch-Brexiters.

But the reality of the Brexit folly, when the veil of campaign slogans such as “Get Brexit Done” or “The UK’s new start” is lifted, is that what is being pursued heaps entirely unnecessary further misery on households and businesses already having to cope with the grim fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic. And for what? So some people can feel more British?