British government downplays report on 'worst-case' Brexit

A no-deal Brexit could lead to the return of a hard border between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
A no-deal Brexit could lead to the return of a hard border between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.PHOTO: AFP

PM Johnson also denies misleading Queen about his motives for suspending Parliament

LONDON • The British government insisted yesterday that its forecast of food and medicine shortages, gridlock at ports and riots in the streets after a no-deal Brexit is an avoidable worst-case scenario.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also denied misleading Queen Elizabeth II about his reasons for suspending Parliament just weeks before the country is due to leave the European Union.

In better news for the embattled British leader, a Belfast court rejected claims that his Brexit strategy should be ruled illegal because it harmed Northern Ireland's peace process.

Mr Johnson took office in July vowing to get Brexit done on the scheduled Oct 31 date - "do or die", even if there is no divorce deal to smooth the way.

But many lawmakers, campaigners, economists and businesses fear that a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating. Lawmakers forced the government to publish its official assessment of the impact of leaving the EU on Oct 31 without a divorce agreement.

The six-page classified document, dated Aug 2, said Customs checks meant the number of trucks crossing the main freight route between Calais and Dover would drop by between 40 per cent and 60 per cent within a day of a no-deal Brexit, with disruptions possibly lasting up to three months. The supply of certain types of fresh foods and essential medicines would decrease, prices would go up and poor people would be hit hardest, it said.

The paper also described major disruption for travellers between Britain and the EU, uncertainty for United Kingdom citizens living in Europe, and said attempts to maintain an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would probably fail.

It also said that a no-deal exit could trigger major protests and even riots. But Mr Johnson insisted the bleak scenario was "not where we intend to end up".

"This is a worst-case scenario which civil servants obviously have to prepare for, but in the last few months, and particularly in the 50 days since I have been Prime Minister, we have been massively accelerating our preparations," he said.

Opposition politicians said the "Operation Yellowhammer" document - the government's code name for its Brexit preparations - proved that Mr Johnson is reck-less to consider leaving the EU without a deal.

The government refused to comply with another part of Parliament's demand - that it hand over e-mails and texts among officials and aides discussing the government's decision to suspend Parliament in the run-up to the Brexit deadline.

The order to release the Yellowhammer document was one of a series of blows to the government from opposition lawmakers and rebel Conservatives.

They also passed a law that orders the government to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if no agreement has been reached by late next month, and rejected Mr Johnson's call for a snap general election.


Then on Tuesday, Mr Johnson suspended Parliament for five weeks until Oct 14, sparking outrage among legislators and several legal challenges.

The UK Supreme Court is set to consider next week whether the shutdown should be reversed, after conflicting rulings in lower courts.

Last week, the High Court in London said the decision was inherently political and "not a matter for the courts".

But Scotland's highest civil court ruled on Wednesday that the shutdown was illegal "because it had the purpose of stymieing Parliament".

Mr Johnson insists he suspended Parliament so that he can launch a fresh domestic agenda at a new session next month.

He said he had "absolutely not" misled the Queen - whose formal approval was needed to suspend Parliament - about his motives.

In Northern Ireland, claimants had argued that a no-deal Brexit would undermine agreements between the British and Irish governments that were struck during the peace process.

A no-deal Brexit could lead to the return of a hard border between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Judge Bernard McCloskey ruled that the "claim and counterclaim, assertion and counter-assertion, allegation and denial, blow and counter-blow" of the raging Brexit arguments belonged in the world of politics, not law. If the claimants appeal against the ruling, the case could join the two other legal challenges to Mr Johnson's Brexit plans before the Supreme Court next week.

Mr Johnson said yesterday that he was "working very hard" to strike a new deal with the bloc after the agreement made by his predecessor Theresa May was rejected three times by Britain's Parliament.

Mr Johnson's envoy David Frost has been holding talks in Brussels this week, but no breakthrough has been made, and the EU said it is still waiting for firm proposals from the UK. "The UK has not proposed any alternatives and anything that has been legally credible and workable," European Parliament president David Sassoli said yesterday.

The bloc's chief Brexit negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, told reporters that "we are still ready to examine objectively any concrete and legally operational proposals from the UK".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2019, with the headline 'British government downplays report on 'worst-case' Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe