George Pascoe-Watson: Communication is key to making a success of Brexit

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 30 March 2017 in Opinion

The government needs a clear message, but David Davis' white paper on the Great Repeal Bill failed at the first hurdle


Prime Ministers must be crystal clear if they are to land their punch with voters.

Margaret Thatcher’s “no, no, no”; John Major’s “bastards”; Tony Blair’s “many not the few”; Gordon Brown’s “prudence”. They are all remembered.

Mrs May has pronounced: “Brexit means Brexit”. But here lies a problem that her team have been wrestling with in recent days. There is a conflict between the end and the means by which the Prime Minister will get us there. Especially when it comes to communication.

Taking back control means translating thousands upon thousands of laws back into UK hands, then deciding which ones to scrap, keep or improve. The process is not only time-consuming – some have said it could take 10 years. The problem is that the process is complex, and the language impenetrable to all of us without a degree in jurisprudence. And that pretty much means all of us in practice.

Just take this random couple of sentences from the Great Repeal Bill White Paper published at midday by David Davis. “Everyone will have been operating on the basis that the law means what the CJEU has already determined it does, and any other starting point would be to change the law. Insofar as case law concerns an aspect of EU law that is not being converted into UK law, that element of the case law will not need to be applied by the UK courts.”

Well, that’s clear then.

This stuff is legal, it’s complicated, it’s not language most of us ever use. And it’s confusing. So how on earth does the PM convince voters she’s on track when her moves are shrouded in this gobbledegook?

Communicating complexity to different audiences in a negotiation is one of the biggest challenges Mrs May faces.

There’s the British general public. They don’t have the time to focus on progress. They know we’re leaving and they want the best deal possible. But within this audience there are remainers and leavers. They all sit on the scale, but at different points. Mrs May must reassure the public we are leaving, and that she’s seeking the best possible deal, but everyone’s vision of a “best possible deal” differs. She can’t, of course, be explicit to her home audience about what she’s seeking to achieve. She can’t show her hand here because it will be seen on the other side of the poker table.

The media will rightly be scrutinising every dot and comma, every raised eyebrow of discussion, interview, published document and throwaway remark to divine what’s really happening.

Much of the White Paper is about case law.  Should we accept European Court of Justice case law or not? And where does the Supreme Court fit in?

How are we to translate this stuff as businesses, in communities, socially?

At the same time as the PM wrestles with the home audience she must also communicate successfully with our EU partners.

There are 27 countries plus the Commission to worry about. They, too, are all on different parts of the scale when it comes to what a good outcome looks like. France, Germany, the bigger countries are arguably easier to deal with. We have skin in the game with these places. But Slovenia? What have we got to offer there? What leverage do we have?

And they all have an equal vote when it comes to the final package.

To those abroad Mrs May must be seen to be reasonable, negotiating in good faith, respectful and, well, diplomatic. Can she do this and keep the Brexiteers, and especially what some call the “paleo sceptics”, onside? Will they be satisfied she’s channelling her Boudicca on Blighty’s behalf?

There’s similar complexity in the work that’s underway, quietly, in Scotland.

Arranging for Holyrood to have greater powers is one way of quelling a return of nationalism. But in practice this means allowing Scotland to make more decisions and the UK is subject not only to the single European market, it is also subject to the internal single market. Giving the Scots new powers from Westminster isn’t straight forward when we are also members of the wider EU. Is what is envisaged appropriate or allowed under EU law, or even the UK’s single market powers? And how can Mrs May communicate to the mass of Scots that she is on their side if there’s no certainty about what can, and cannot be done in their name?

Mrs May has a communications job on her hands, the like of which may never have been seen before.

Some in government circles were a bit sniffy about the “retro” style of interview Mrs May did on Wednesday with Andrew Neil.

But 30 minutes at 7pm - the slot usually occupied by light entertainment magazine The One Show – worked well. It was seen by a large audience who rarely engage in political moments.

Oh, and it also worked to Mrs May’s advantage say colleagues.


Because the same audience were exposed to 15 minutes of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Tories could not have been happier.




Picture by: PA/PA Wire/PA Images


About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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