Boris Johnson has been accused of seriously misleading the public with the government’s campaign to Get Ready for Brexit on 31 October, with MPs and experts urging civil service chief Sir Mark Sedwill to intervene to make clear the UK is highly unlikely to leave without a deal on that day.
The £100m advertising campaign, which claims to set out what the public needs to do to get ready for a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, is now “redundant and misleading”, according to a cross-party group of MPs led by Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson.
They have written to Sir Mark Sedwill, the head of the civil service, demanding he take action to stop the campaign wasting money and giving inaccurate information to the public and businesses, which may wrongly overestimate the chances of the UK leaving without a deal on 31 October. In practice, this can only happen if the EU turns down the UK’s request for an article 50 extension or Johnson breaks the law by ignoring parliament.
“A publicly funded campaign, encouraging businesses to be ready for the UK’s October no deal exit, as well as being factually incorrect (as it addresses an event which cannot now occur) is inherently party political (as it cannot be government policy, but is Conservative policy), bringing the campaign into conflict, not only with the propriety rules highlighted above, but also the ministerial code,” the MPs said.
Jill Rutter, the programme director of the Institute for Government, also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the campaign now that the Benn bill requiring Johnson to request a three-month delay to Brexit if there is no deal has passed into law.
She told the Guardian: “I have got various reservations about what the government is doing in terms of communications. I am dubious about Get Ready for Brexit where they are still saying the UK will leave the EU on 31 October in big letters on their website despite the fact they can only really say the UK may still be leaving or might still be leaving.
“The basic point is that people running government communications need to be scrupulously careful … We are not in an election so purdah rules don’t kick in. But people running it have to be asking: does this meet the value for money criteria of spending money as taxpayer-funded communications?”
She said most of the communications on the Get Ready for Brexit website point to actions people need to take in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as leaving with a deal will not lead to change during the transitional period.
“To give an unequivocal message that nothing has changed since the Benn bill leads to more questions,” she said. “I think it’s a very grey area at the moment and this is really an issue for Mark Sedwill that government advertising is supposed to be a public information campaign. It is not supposed to be a way of buying electoral advantage. They need to make sure they can be justified on the grounds of informing the public.”
Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary of the Treasury, also questioned the propriety of the Get Ready For Brexit campaign that prepares people for a no-deal departure on 31 October.
“Slightly puzzled the Cabinet Office has approved adverts telling us UK will leave EU on 31 October. I though HM The Queen had given royal assent to an Act delaying Brexit (unless there’s a deal). Has the Accounting Officer asked for a direction? #impropriety,” he tweeted.
A No 10 source rejected the criticism, saying: “It’s absolutely right that the government ensures that people have the information they need for when Britain leaves the EU. People opposing this campaign have been opposed to Britain leaving the EU from day one and will do anything to stop Brexit and overturn the referendum result.”
Eyebrows have also been raised about the government’s police recruitment advertisements that some on social media have likened to Tory election campaign adverts, with a blue font and messaging that the government is creating 20,000 extra police officers.
Rutter said government communications chiefs should be asking: “Is it really about boosting police recruiting or is it basically a message to the world more generally that the government is recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers?”
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “The government seems unsure whether it is recruiting people to the police service, or recruiting the police to the Tory general election campaign. Labour’s pledge is to recruit thousands of extra frontline police, including bobbies on the beat. The Tory election campaign slogan includes taking people out of the back office and putting them in uniform. I think the public will understand the real difference.”
A Conservative source hit back saying the IfG – a thinktank and charity with cross-party governance – was “not a remotely neutral organsation” and claimed it was a “cheerleader” for the Benn bill.
A government spokeswoman said: “Impartiality is one of the fundamental values of the civil service and underpins its ability to effectively serve the government of the day. The Civil Service Code clearly sets out that all staff should adhere to the principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.
“The legal position remains that the UK is due to leave the EU on 31
October. As such, this campaign is part of our work as a responsible
government to provide important information and guidance to people and businesses on what they need to do to get ready for Brexit.”