No-deal Brexit could hit food prices and availability, retail chiefs warn
And a former head of MI5 said withdrawing from the EU without agreement will make Britain less safe and should be ‘avoided at all costs’.
Leading retailers have warned that a no-deal Brexit will drive up food prices and pose a “significant” risk to the range and quality of products on supermarket shelves.
A letter to MPs warned that tariffs would “greatly” increase import costs if the UK is forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, while potential delays at ports will “reduce the availability and shelf life of many products in our stores”.
Meanwhile, a former MI5 chief warned that a no-deal Brexit should be “avoided at all costs”.
Baroness Manningham-Buller said that a range of security threats – from terrorism to Russian interference – were best dealt with “in a European context”, telling BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “If we leave without a deal we are going to be less safe.
“I am pretty queasy that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is so in favour of Brexit – I think that should give us all pause.”
The warnings came as MPs prepared to vote on Tuesday on a series of proposed amendments to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans, including some which would block EU withdrawal without an agreement.
Downing Street said the PM remained committed to quitting the EU on March 29 this year and will take her plan back to the House of Commons for a second “meaningful vote” as soon as possible after Tuesday’s debate.
Mrs May was coming under pressure from Conservative colleagues and the Democratic Unionist Party to seek further concessions from Brussels on the so-called “backstop” arrangements designed to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.
Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady said he hoped to secure Government backing for an amendment on Tuesday which would give the PM “enormous firepower” when she goes back to Brussels, by telling her to replace the backstop with an alternative arrangement.
But hopes of securing concessions were dealt a blow as European Commission vice-president Jyrki Kateinen said it would be “a stupid thing” for the EU to make further changes putting the remaining 27 members at a disadvantage simply to secure a deal.
Mr Kateinen said there was “no reason to give any concessions” to the UK and there was “not much room for manoeuvre” on the backstop.
Meanwhile, Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a Brussels press conference: “This Withdrawal Agreement has been agreed with the UK Government, it is endorsed by leaders and is not open for renegotiation.”
Signatories to the retailers’ letter include Sainsbury’s, Asda, Marks & Spencer, the Co-Op, Lidl, Waitrose, Costcutter, KFC, McDonald’s and Pret A Manger as well as the British Retail Consortium.
They warned that the UK relies on Europe for almost one-third of its food, and that it will not be possible in a no-deal scenario to mitigate all risks to supply chains, many of which involve highly perishable goods.
“In March, the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit is sourced from the EU at that time of year,” said the letter.
The supermarket and restaurant chain bosses said: “We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no-deal Brexit.
“We anticipate significant risks to maintaining the choice, quality and durability of food that our customers have come to expect in our stores, and there will be inevitable pressure on food prices from higher transport costs, currency devaluation and tariffs.
“We are therefore asking you to work with your colleagues in Parliament urgently to find a solution that avoids the shock of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March and removes these risks for UK consumers.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman told a Westminster media briefing that there was “recognition” among other EU nations that finalising a deal is in their interests as well as the UK’s.
“The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to leaving the EU with a deal, but clearly if we are to obtain parliamentary support for that deal some changes are going to have to be made,” the PM’s spokesman said.
In a pointed intervention, arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson insisted he had it from “senior sources” the PM was planning to go to Brussels to renegotiate the backstop and win a “freedom clause”.
However, Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney insisted there would be no changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, which states the UK will obey EU customs rules if no wider deal has been struck after a transition period.
Mr Coveney told the Press Association: “Peace and the Good Friday Agreement are more important than Brexit.
“Even in a no-deal Brexit situation every party and every MP in the UK will have a responsibility to ensure there is no return to a hard border and Northern Ireland is protected.
“That won’t be easy and those who misrepresent the backstop don’t have an alternative to it.”
Meanwhile, there was no announcement from Labour over whether it will officially back a cross-party amendment put forward by the party’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nick Boles aimed at stopping a no-deal exit and delaying the date of Brexit until the end of the year.
Mr Boles told Today the plan has “a great deal of support among ministers and indeed Cabinet ministers” and they were pressing for a free vote.
“This is the last chance for Parliament, this is probably the only opportunity that Parliament is going to have to intervene in this process, to take control,” he said.
“If we don’t seize the moment tomorrow afternoon then we are at grave risk of just driving off the edge on March 29 without really wanting to, and when there might be a compromise we could achieve if we just had a few more months.”