Brexit: leaked papers predict food shortages and port delays

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The UK will face a three-month meltdown at its ports, a hard Irish border and shortages of food and medicine if it leaves the EU without a deal, according to government documents on Operation Yellowhammer.

The documents predict severe extended delays to medicine supplies and shortages of some fresh foods combined with price rises as a likely scenario if the UK leaves without a withdrawal agreement, which is due to happen on 31 October.

They suggest there has been a worsening of the risk since documents leaked to the Guardian showed some of the government’s “reasonable worst-case scenarios” (RWCS) involved risk to medicine supplies and disruption to food chains.

The dossier, compiled this month, says up to 85% of lorries using the main channel crossings “may not be ready” for French customs and could face queues of two and a half days, the Sunday Times reported.

Medical supplies will be “vulnerable to severe extended delays” as three-quarters of the UK’s medicines enter the country via the main Channel crossings, and the availability of fresh food will be reduced and prices will rise, which could hit “vulnerable groups”.

Liberal Democrats: Their first choice would be legislation to extend article 50 then call a second referendum. If this did not work the party would support the no-confidence motion, but rather than installing Corbyn, the Lib Dems would seek a cross-party government led by a backbench grandee, such as Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman. It is not clear if the party would try to block a temporary Corbyn government.

SNP: The Scottish National party supports a no-confidence motion. They have said they will talk to Corbyn about his plan, despite their differences over Brexit. The party’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has criticised Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson's stance.

Plaid Cymru: Liz Saville Roberts, Westminster leader for the party, has indicated she could back the Corbyn plan, but would prefer an immediate second referendum rather than general election.

Independent Group for Change/Independents: The group formerly known as the TIGers, now split and reduced in number after two joined the Liberal Democrats, seem wary of the Corbyn plan, with some MPs saying they could not support him.

Greens: Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s sole MP has taken a similar view to Saville Roberts, and has also appealed to Swinson to reconsider backing a temporary Corbyn-led government.

Rebel Tories: Conservative party MP Guto Bebb has said that even a Corbyn government would be preferable to no deal. But it seems hard to see many other Tories following him.

Former Labour independents: Ian Austin, a long-time Corbyn foe, has already ruled out supporting his plan for a temporary government, and it is hard to see MPs such as Frank Field, John Woodcock, and others, doing so either.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

The government also believes the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be likely as current plans to avoid widespread checks would prove unsustainable.

A senior Whitehall 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.”

Downing Street sources would not comment on the record about the leaked document but hit back at its accuracy, saying it was prepared under Theresa May’s administration and did not reflect the level of planning that had gone on under Boris Johnson.

A No 10 source said: “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.

“Those obstructing preparation are no longer in government, £2bn of extra funding has already been made available and Whitehall has been stood up to actually do the work through the daily ministerial meetings. The entire posture of government has changed.”

Leading pro-Brexit MPs also rejected the predictions made in the document. Two Tory former cabinet ministers, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, claimed the leak was an example of an “establishment” plot to “sow fear in people’s minds”.

On Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, Kwasi Kwarteng, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said there was “a lot of scaremongering around and a lot of people are playing into Project Fear and all the rest of it”.

Johnson insists he still wants the UK to leave with a deal but he has demanded a fresh agreement with the EU without the backstop, a mechanism to prevent a hard border in Ireland that could keep Britain in a customs union.

He is due to visit Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, before a G7 summit this week to underline his demands for concessions. However, the EU is adamant that the backstop must stay.

Related: G7 leaders wait nervously for Boris Johnson’s debut on the world stage

With the likelihood of no deal increasing, more than 100 MPs from across the political parties have called on Johnson to recall parliament to allow for debate on Brexit.

Moves are under way by Tory rebels along with Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat and other MPs to legislate against no deal. If that fails they are working on replacing Johnson with a caretaker government after a vote of no confidence.

Johnson’s strategy is to blame parliamentarians for blocking Brexit, before a possible general election that he would fight on a “people versus parliament” platform.

(September 3, 2019) 

The date on which the Commons is likely to return from summer recess. It is the first date that MPs could hold a vote of no confidence in the new prime minister. However, rebel MPs would need to be confident they could form an alternative government, as many wish to avoid triggering an election.

(September 12, 2019) 

Mps would be due to go on conference recess - but could continue to sit if a no-confidence vote had been lost.

(September 17, 2019) 

Assuming the government has lost a confidence vote, this would be the deadline for Labour or any unity government to win a confidence vote. If not achieved, Boris Johnson would call an election. Parliament could then be prorogued.

(September 22, 2019) 

The Labour and Conservative party conferences are due to be held on consecutive weeks.

(September 27, 2019) 

Parliament would be dissolved if an election were to be held on 1 November. 

(October 17, 2019) 

EU leaders meet for the final European council summit before the UK's extension is due to expire. Rebel Tories and remainers may choose to call a no-confidence vote if an extension is not offered as a way of preventing no deal.

(October 31, 2019) 

The six-month article 50 extension will expire.

(November 1, 2019) 

The UK could hold a general election.

In a letter leaked to the Mail on Sunday, Johnson said it was “plain as a pikestaff” that EU leaders would “simply not compromise” and agree to a new deal if Tory MPs openly discussed stopping a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

The letter will be seen as an attack on Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, and Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, who are among those leading Tory rebels trying to find ways to stop the government leaving the EU without an agreement.

In a letter to 20 Tories who had written to him demanding a deal, Johnson replied: “Any such parliamentary campaign, any tricks of procedure or alliance of factions designed to derail Brexit, gravely damages the chances of our securing a deal.”

The government is applying its energies to showing the EU that it is serious about leaving on 31 October with or without a deal. This weekend Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, moved to sign a commencement order, which would trigger the end of the supremacy of EU law in the UK on 31 October.