11 January 2016

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the Government “would have to do everything necessary to make [a Brexit] work” but that the civil service was not working on a specific Brexit contingency plan. This evoked a strong response from a number of people including David Davis MP, who said,

Departure is not difficult, but it is complicated. We should be getting on with this now. Let’s be pessimistic and say there’s a one in three chance of us leaving — that is still a big contingency, so it is nothing short of irresponsible not to have done any preparation. How on earth can you assess whether Brexit is right or wrong unless you assess how you would do it?

So should the Government be working on a Brexit contingency plan? In a word, yes. But as is often the case it is not as simple as that for a number of reasons.

What information does the Government have to publish?

Stepping back for a moment its worth remembering that, thanks to an amendment from the House of Lords, the Government is committed by the EU referendum act to publish a number of documents at most 10 weeks before the vote is held. These include:

  • “A statement setting out what has been agreed by member States following negotiations relating to the United Kingdom’s request for reforms”
  • “The opinion of the Government of the United Kingdom on what has been agreed”
  • “Information about rights, and obligations, that arise under EU law as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU”
  • “Examples of countries that do not have membership of the EU but do have other arrangements with the EU (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements)”

Earlier versions of the amendment did try to commit the Government to publishing something akin to a Brexit contingency plan. While it is far from the same, there will at least be a discussion and examination of the potential alternatives to membership published.

Taking the Prime Minister at his word?

I have consistently argued for contingency plans to be prepared, both in terms of Brexit but also during the heights of the Eurozone crisis on the potential break-up of the single currency or of a country exiting the Eurozone. But as has now come to light, many governments and institutions were working on contingency plans for the Eurozone but were simply not discussing them publicly for fear of spooking investors. It is entirely possible that something similar is at play here.

Committing to a single public Brexit contingency plan is a different question entirely

The idea of a Brexit contingency plan though is also tied in with a couple of other factors, including: who will be in charge and what reasons actually motivate a Brexit. There has already been a very public debate about whether David Cameron and this current government would be able to continue in place if they campaigned to Remain and lost. Given this uncertainty, it is clear that any Brexit contingency plan would in no way be guaranteed to be in place after the referendum even if there were a Brexit. Who’s to say a new leader wouldn’t want a new plan?

Ultimately, a big part of the referendum debate will be about why the UK might want to leave the EU and how it can prosper outside. Any post Brexit plan will also need to take account of this and the range of views supporting an out vote – as the Leave campaigns often point out. Leave campaigners should also be careful about what they wish for. Do they really want the Government to be in control of setting the terms of the debate by offering a concrete view of what life would be like after Brexit? Given these points it’s hard to see the Government being able to credibly and publicly commit to a single Brexit contingency plan.

Onus on the campaigns to put forward a Brexit contingency plan

All this said, I can’t help but get a significant sense of hypocrisy from those backing Brexit calling on the government to outline a plan when they are yet to do so themselves. As we have said before the onus should be on both sides of the campaign to put forward their clear visions for the UK inside and outside the EU, or at the very least have a discussion of how it might look.

This is part of the reason why Open Europe published its comprehensive Brexit report which sketches an outline of how we see the UK prospering post-Brexit – taking an open and liberal approach. It would be nice if the campaigns joined us in doing so.