British officials are war-gaming various strategies for coping with the disruption of Britain leaving the European Union without an exit deal, including declaring a state of emergency and martial law to avert disorder provoked by possible food shortages and energy outages.
Details emerged of Operation Yellow Hammer, the contingency planning underway for a so-called no-deal Brexit, ahead of important parliamentary votes this week that could result in Britain postponing its departure by nine months or even more.
Operation Yellow Hammer has provoked the wrath of hardline Brexiters, who say the war-gaming is excessive and the leaking of what the government is considering is just designed to scare rebel lawmakers into accepting the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement the House of Commons rejected earlier this month.
As the exit day of March 29 looms, the government and businesses are scrambling to prepare for possible chaos wrought by a no-deal exit, which some fear could severely disrupt supply chains, energy networks and basic cross-border services, from banking to travel. Downing Street admits a no-deal exit would bring disruption “but as a responsible government we are taking the appropriate steps to minimize this disruption and ensure the country is prepared.”
Some civil servants have compared the likely disruption to the impact of a war. Defense officials told Sky News Sunday the army is stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition in readiness. “An army marches on its stomach. If supply lines break down, they struggle,” an official said.
Earlier this month, nearly 100 trucks took part in a drill to test Britain's contingency plans for coping with likely customs and security delays in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The port of Dover normally sees 10,000 trucks pass through every day, bringing vital supplies from the continent and sending Britain's exports to the European Union and beyond. The fear is a large part of southeast England could see unmanageable traffic lines.
Hardline Brexiters, like former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, have dismissed the no-deal Brexit warnings as hysteria. “These doom-laden predictions are so hyperbolical as to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Brexiteers have, for months, been arguing that a no-deal exit is manageable and government warnings are overblown,” Johnson said recently.
The House of Commons is set to vote Tuesday on whether Britain should delay the March 29 exit if a withdrawal deal that will garner sufficient support from lawmakers cannot be reached with Brussels.
More than a dozen ministers are warning they’ll resign if May fails to commit to avoiding a no-deal Brexit, although they’re prepared to give her two weeks to try to conclude a new withdrawal deal first.
In the event she can’t, parliament would have to pass new legislation to delay an exit. But delaying Britain's departure would also require unanimous agreement from the 27 other EU member states, and Brussels has warned the exit could only be postponed for a handful of months.
Ironically, rebellious hardline Euro-skeptics in May’s ruling Conservative party, who were key in the heavy defeat of May's Brexit Withdrawal Agreement earlier this month, appear to be softening their opposition to her deal; while pro-EU Conservative rebels and middle-of the-roaders appear to be moving closer together in an alliance determined now to bury it for good.
May's proposed deal would see Britain locked in a customs union with the European Union for several years while it negotiates a vaguely defined free trade settlement.
In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence EU laws, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. The transition was reached to avoid customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but British lawmakers fear Britain could be trapped indefinitely in the transition.
Leading Brexiters say if May can get a sunset clause written into the agreement to allow Britain to escape the transition agreement later on, if it wished, or if the transition was time-limited, they might reverse their opposition and back the deal.
The possible change of heart is being determined by their fear that pro-EU lawmakers are gaining in parliamentary strength. But it isn’t clear Brussels or the other 27 member states will agree such a clause, they insist there can’t be substantial changes to the deal they agreed on after two years of haggling.
Pro-EU lawmakers across all parties appear emboldened and determined to negotiate a much softer agreement that would see Britain stay in a customs union with the bloc permanently.