Countdown to Brexit: 61 days – Brexit gets animal as Yellowhammer challenges Cobra

The Government is keeping a running list of Brexit scenarios – including no-deal – and their impacts on the nation, its businesses and its citizens.  The list is now continually amended and updated and addresses a wide range of potentially serious concerns.

The contingency planning for no-deal – codenamed “Operation Yellowhammer” – began in earnest in September last year and involved hundreds of civil servants being given a three-hour introductory briefing on the potential impact on communities, trade, border crossings and regulations.

It is only this month, however, that the Cabinet Office widened the training to the vast majority of civil servants as the impacts are becoming better understood and – according to one account published last week include:

  • A reduction in certain fresh foods and increases in prices, with people on low incomes disproportionately affected.

  • Price rises across utilities and services including fuel.

  • Private companies “cashing in” because they will put commercial considerations first.

  • Police forces being stretched by the likelihood of protests and counter-protests, along with an increase in public disorder.

  • Restocking of medicines becoming problematic after the first six weeks.

  • Disruption of supplies to vets, which could “impact the UK’s ability to prevent and control disease outbreaks” among animals.

  • A significant reduction in the flow of goods through Dover and Eurotunnel to as low as 13% of current capacity on the day of Brexit.

It is now self-evident that time has run out for the UK and EU to conclude a data protection agreement before Brexit.  This could well prevent police from having the instant access they have today to information held by European forces on EU citizens arrested in the UK.

Another major concern focuses on the Government’s “Cobra” committee - which sits in times of emergency – and whether it will be able to make decisions about the fallout from Brexit.  While local authorities, agencies and health trusts have been making no-deal preparations, there is little evidence from Whitehall about what the central Government Departments have done.  “Cobra can only take decisions if it knows what is going on at the local level - it needs information that has been properly collected and collated.  At the moment we don’t have that system in place.”

Another conversation reported in the press quoted a civil servant as saying: “We are having meetings for the sake of having meetings.  There has been no proper oversight of what has been going on the ground.  So, in many areas we are flying blind.  It’s appalling and incredibly frustrating.  There has been a lack of energy and a lack of urgency. The preparations for no-deal Brexit feel very unstable.”

It’s almost as if the behaviour in Whitehall is disbelief that a no-deal Brexit could happen - or that if it did, it wouldn’t be as bad as some predictions.   However, the short-term impact could be worse.

And that is according to the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who said on Friday that there would be “significant disruption to the UK economy if Britain left the EU without a deal.”

He told the BBC’s Today programme: “We will find ways of managing things like the additional time it takes for trucks to get through the border - but it might take us quite a while to sort that out.” He added that “There will be a short-term impact through disruption – and there will be a long-term impact through a reduction in the size of our economy.

“I clearly do not believe that making a choice to leave without a deal would be a responsible thing to do - but I recognise that that is potentially a default that we could find ourselves in.”

The Independent Unionist MP, Lady Hermon, has gone further - saying that a no-deal Brexit threatens the stability of the United Kingdom.  She told BBC Radio Ulster's ‘Inside Politics’ programme that "we absolutely must prevent there being a no-deal Brexit and a hard border on the island of Ireland".

Hermon is the only non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland who takes her seat in the Commons.  The North Down MP voted in favour of accepting the Prime Minister's EU Withdrawal Agreement.

She said Theresa May "doesn't have the option to bin the Irish border backstop" as "it's in the deal - and it is there to protect the peace we have enjoyed for the past 20 years".

A former ‘remainer’ - Hermon said she felt she has compromised in backing the government's deal.  She argued that it is now up to the DUP and the Conservative Brexiteers who oppose the backstop "to show how pragmatic they are".

She does not think that extending Article 50 beyond 29 March is a good idea – adding that “holding another round of European parliamentary elections would be a nonsense” – and that holding another EU referendum is a "non-starter".

It’s going to be a close vote on Tuesday with the outcome "anybody's guess".  She added that neither the DUP, nor the Brexiteers of the European Research Group, will know until Tuesday night whether they "may have overplayed their hand".

She noted that the atmosphere in the House of Commons was "grim" – and that "it's also grim throughout the country - and particularly in Northern Ireland" and that she is "heartbroken that we are now in this difficult situation," referencing the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and highlighting "20 years of peace in my lifetime - which has been wonderful".

John ShuttleworthComment