UK now a long way from no-deal 'gridlock and chaos' says Next boss

Julia Kollewe
Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

The UK can avoid gridlock and chaos in the case of a no-deal Brexit because Boris Johnson’s government has stepped up preparations, according to the boss of one of Britain’s biggest retailers.

Lord Wolfson, the chief executive of the clothing chain Next, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the UK was close to being well prepared, pointing to simplified customs and border procedures. Next has moved all its imports and exports out of Calais to other ports.

Wolfson, a prominent Vote Leave supporter, had previously warned that no deal would lead to “chaos and disorder”, with lengthy queues at ports and higher prices in shops, but he said new measures now introduced had changed the outlook.

“We are a long way from gridlock and chaos; the fact that HMRC have introduced these transition measures will make an enormous difference,” he said. “The encouraging thing is that we are rapidly moving from the gridlock and chaos camp into the well-prepared camp.”

He added: “I should stress that I would much prefer a deal to no deal, but I am much less frightened of no deal if the government is well prepared, and we’ve got every indication that they are now taking that seriously.”

Wolfson said he still believed the UK could reach a deal with the EU before the 31 October deadline. “In the vast majority of deals I’ve done, if the deadline is midnight, the deal gets done at 11:55, but we need to have nerves of steel and prepare ourselves for either outcome.”

He said the UK has to be “prepared to walk away” to secure the best deal.

His position is at odds with stark warnings from most business groups and some former cabinet ministers, including the former chancellor Philip Hammond, who have warned of the dire consequences of a no-deal scenario.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s independent forecasting body, has warned that a no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain into a recession. The Bank of England has said it could cause a material shock to the UK economy as well as disruption for EU companies. It sees a 33% risk of Britain falling into recession early next year, even if a Brexit deal is reached, as the prolonged uncertainty drags down the economy.

The Conservative peer admitted that the UK government could not influence what happened on the other side of the border, and smaller firms that have not prepared could cause problems at bottlenecks such as Calais.

He said the last government under Theresa May had failed to prepare adequately for a no-deal outcome.

“There was a wilful attempt to not prepare. They were so scared of no deal they couldn’t allow anyone to admit it could happen. That’s changing and I think that means in the worst case you get mild disruption; in the best case you get a deal.”