Lorries queue on the A20 outside Dover in Kent where Operation Stack is expected to be implemented after the queue for lorries trying to reach the Channel port has stretched to around seven miles. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 12, 2019. See PA story TRANSPORT Stack Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
A leaked Cabinet Office report predicts that disruption at ports may last months in the event of a no-deal Brexit © PA

A leaked Cabinet Office report has laid out in chilling detail the likely consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Fuel and medicine shortages. Months of chaos at ports. A return to a hard border with Ireland. Clashes between British and EU fishing boats. Civil servants are clear this is not a repeat of what Leave supporters in 2016 dismissed as “Project Fear”; these are government planning assumptions of a realistic, not even a worst-case, scenario. The document highlights the hardships that prime minister Boris Johnson is ready to inflict on Britain in pursuit of an extreme option favoured by a minority and unsupported by an electoral mandate. This is folly on a monumental scale.

The assumptions in the so-called Project Yellowhammer report, presented to cabinet earlier this month, are not surprising. What is new is that the public now has an opportunity to read a detailed Whitehall document reflecting the no-deal alarms that ministers have been privately hearing from civil servants.

Disruption at ports may last three months before traffic flows recover 50 per cent to 70 per cent of current levels. Shortages of fresh produce and vital drugs could result, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable. Government plans to set petrol import tariffs at zero could mean two of Britain’s six main refineries would close, with 2,000 job losses. Plans to avoid border checks in Northern Ireland are probably unsustainable, leading to reimposition of a hard border and resulting protests. Contrary to assertions by Tory hard Brexiters that EU states would do bilateral deals with Britain to mitigate no-deal damage, none has been concluded bar one on social security with Dublin.

Downing Street has blamed a disgruntled ex-minister for leaking what it says is an outdated document. Planning and funding for a no-deal exit has since been ramped up. Mr Johnson insists his hardball stance will force the EU to improve the UK’s withdrawal agreement. Yet even more than his predecessor Theresa May, when she briefly flirted with a no-deal exit earlier this year, the prime minister is playing chicken, risking the nation’s future.

The EU has said it will not blink. No amount of Johnsonian boosterism and invocations of the Blitz spirit will mitigate the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. While even Winston Churchill made some disastrously poor decisions, the great wartime leader on whom Mr Johnson has the temerity to style himself would surely not have inflicted such a senseless act of self-harm on his country.

Rather than setting undeliverable preconditions, Mr Johnson should seek, in meetings with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel this week, modifications to the withdrawal agreement that could make it acceptable to a parliamentary majority. If he is not prepared to do so, parliament must force his government to act responsibly. Anti-no-deal parties seem unable to unite around a no-confidence vote, due to justified mistrust of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as even a caretaker prime minister. The first priority for MPs should therefore be to pass a law obliging the prime minister to seek another Brexit extension from October 31.

Since Mr Johnson is hinting he may ride roughshod over parliamentary democracy, there can, sadly, be no guarantee MPs will be able to block a no-deal. Companies must therefore prepare for the worst. As a recent CBI report underlined, they are not taking the threat seriously enough. A hard Brexit is undesirable. But it is foolhardy to ignore that it might become reality in little over 10 weeks from now.

Letter in response to this editorial comment:

Boris ought to quote Tennyson correctly / From Sean Magee, Tetbury, Glos, UK

Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article