Leaked Brexit Document Depicts Government Fears Of Gridlock, Food Shortages, Unrest

Aug 18, 2019
Originally published on August 19, 2019 8:57 am

Britain would face gridlock at ports; shortages of medicine, fuel and food; and a hard border with Ireland if it left the European Union with no deal, according to a leaked government document.

The U.K. seems increasingly likely to crash out of the EU on Oct. 31, and the picture the government paints in a confidential document compiled under the code name Operation Yellowhammer and obtained by the Sunday Times is sobering. It details the ways government leaders are working to avert a "catastrophic collapse in the nation's infrastructure."

Trucks could be dealt 2 1/2-day delays at ports, with significant disruption lasting up to three months, which would affect fuel supplies in London and the southeast of England, according the document.

Medical supplies will also be vulnerable to "severe extended delays," since about three-quarters of the U.K.'s medicine comes across the English Channel.

Fresh food will become less available, and prices will rise, according to the document. That outcome is expected to especially hit vulnerable groups.

The government anticipates the return of a hard border with Ireland, which could spark protests and roadblocks.

It also forecasts the closure of two oil refineries after import tariffs are eliminated, causing an expected loss of 2,000 jobs, worker unrest and disruptions to fuel supplies.

A government source told the Sunday Times: "This is not Project Fear — this is the most realistic assessment of what the public face with no deal. These are likely, basic, reasonable scenarios — not the worst case."

The revelations come just before Boris Johnson takes his first official foreign trip as prime minister to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in advance of this coming weekend's G-7 summit in Biarritz, France.

The Financial Times quoted government insiders who rebutted the document, saying it is not a realistic scenario for a no-deal Brexit and pointing out that it was written under the leadership of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, and does not reflect the preparations spearheaded by Johnson that are now underway.

"This document is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available. It has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders," a source told the paper.

British Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng also downplayed the report in an interview with a British broadcaster.

"I think there's a lot of scaremongering around and a lot of people are playing into Project Fear," he told Sky News when asked about the leaked document. "We will be fully prepared to leave without a deal on the 31st of October."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Imagine shortages of food and fuel and medicine, ports in a state of gridlock. That is some of what could happen to the United Kingdom if it leaves the European Union with no deal at the end of October. This assessment comes from a dossier on Operation Yellowhammer - that's a secret government contingency plan for a no-deal Brexit which was leaked and reported by The Times of London over the weekend - and it concerns people because the UK's new prime minister, Boris Johnson, seems to be steering the country toward just that, toward crashing out of the EU.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is following this from London. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: So some really grim predictions here. What else did this dossier say?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I mean, some of the facts and figures were really interesting. Trucks could face two-and-a-half-day delays at ports, could be significant disruption lasting up to three months and could see a disruption in the fuel supply to London and southeast of England. And medical supplies, also severe delays because most of them would come over the English Channel.

And the big thing is a government expects a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, and the dossier says that could spark protests and roadblocks.

KING: Well, what does the document say would happen if there was a hard border? Because this has been one of the big worries, right, yeah?

LANGFITT: Exactly, and nobody really talked about this three years ago during the referendum debate - a return to widespread customs checks. And, you know, right now, the border is invisible. It's seamless trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And if you have new customs check, not only is it going to cost companies and damage the economies on either side, but more importantly, it's going to make people along the border really, really angry because nobody wants this.

The border is - people would remember - this was the site of a lot of violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Thirty-six hundred people or more died during those battles in the '70s and the '80s. And there's a genuine fear, I think, that if customs posts go up, that dissident Irish republicans, they're going to see this as dividing Ireland again. And they want to see the island unified, and so they could start shooting up the customs post.

KING: Oh, my God. All right, so this...

LANGFITT: Yeah, this is...

KING: This is a lot.

LANGFITT: ...I've been studying this - yeah, I have been going up there now for three years, and people have been talking about this for this entire time.

KING: So what are people saying about all this? Are they freaking out?

LANGFITT: I would say, you know, this has been going on for three years, so - in terms of Brexit. But what we're seeing, I think, is more stockpiling. There's research that shows that more than $4 billion has already been spent on food, medicine and drink, kind of stockpiling for a possible no-deal Brexit in October. My wife Julie is at Costco this morning. She's, you know, lots of people are doing this.

About a hundred members of Parliament want to recall Parliament. They want to - earlier during the summer recess. They'd like to get them back very soon to be able to talk to Johnson - Boris Johnson - about Brexit preparations. Michael Gove, he's in charge of preparations, and he said well, this - you know, people shouldn't overreact. The dossier is a worst-case scenario, and it's an old document, and the new government's made a lot of progress in the last few weeks. But I don't think there's - we're not seeing any evidence of that. And it seems far-fetched that they would have made big, big gains, you know, big changes.

And, you know, the other thing is that even if one of these things happened, Noel, people would be really upset...

KING: Yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Because as many point out, nobody was talking about this kind of disruption when they voted in 2016 on the referendum.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Noel.