Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Operation Yellowhammer is not simply Project Fear by another name... it's what the Germans call Realpolitik

Confidential 'no-deal' blueprint is not out-of-date and wasn't leaked by a former Cabinet minister, says Tom Kelly. It's what senior civil servants really believe will happen after October 31

Feeling the strain: Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have been moved to deny leaked no-deal plans
Feeling the strain: Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have been moved to deny leaked no-deal plans

By Tom Kelly

Remember this old joke? Question: "How can you tell when a politician is lying?" Answer: "When their lips move." Well, since the revelation in a Sunday newspaper about the Civil Service emergency planning for a 'no-deal' Brexit, the lips of some politicians have been moving quicker than a ventriloquist's dummy on steroids.

The standard lines of defence are either (a) to blame the suspected source of a leak as being mischievous, or (b) to claim that the contents of the document are out-of-date.

I will return to the pathetic damage-limitation lines being parroted by the would-be deceivers and the duped. The stark reality of a no-deal Brexit is truly bleak for the UK. This is not Project Fear - this is what the Germans would call Realpolitik.

But, first of all, let's be glad that someone in the corridors of power at Whitehall knows the full consequences of a no-deal Brexit. It would be inconceivable that, some three years after the result of a Brexit referendum, no one within Government was tasked with scoping out the impact of Brexit and, in particular, a no-deal scenario.

That said, nothing would be surprising from this British Government. It has been hallmarked by one calamitous folly after another.

Secondly, let's also be grateful that senior civil servants tasked with this emergency planning document actually put down in writing the most likely outcomes as they impact on the lives of the population.

They could have tried to minimise, or downplay, the outcomes. One suspects, though, that these are not the worst case scenarios at all, but the outcomes which the Civil Service believe they can manage.

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The picture painted reminds some of 1974 and the Winter of Discontent. Britain in 1974 was dying on its feet. A no-deal Brexit could cause the same kind of tensions which sparked the social and economic disruption of 1970s Britain. The notion that, somehow, there would be no disruption, as claimed by some Brexiteers, is pure bunkum.

It is also clear that certain forecasts are regularly required by the Government to map out issues around trade, travel, food security and the economy. Operation Yellowhammer is a ramped-up planning document, which is based on the Government's own plans. This is the moment when fact trumps fiction.

The disruption caused by a hardline Brexit will not be a "few bumps on the road", as outlined by Michael Gove. It will be like preparing to climb Cave Hill only to discover you have to hike Mont Blanc.

Look at the chaos created in an airport when there is a technical glitch at air traffic control. Now, scale that up, so it occurs not just in Heathrow but also Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast.

A no-deal Brexit creates wholesale uncertainty. The scope of the disruption affecting food, water, law and order, financial services, insurance, security, travel, drugs and disease is simply staggering.

During the Tory leadership race, both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt embarked on the political equivalent of a supermarket sweep. It was roundly condemned by former chancellor Philip Hammond as reckless.

The UK simply doesn't have the reserves to buy its way through a crash-out scenario. The £6bn set aside for a post-Brexit survival plan will be like trying to rescue the passengers from the Titanic with an inflatable pedalo from Pickie Fun Park.

Thirdly, this is no ministerial leak. This document has been in wide circulation. Most Government departments have been inputting their Brexit planning preparations based on the direction set by this current administration. The Government refused to remove the no-deal option from their agenda and, therefore, senior civil servants will have been working on the assumption of a no-deal.

And, finally, this is not an old document, as claimed by some. In fact, before this article was written, a former minister admitted that this is a different planning document to that of the previous Cabinet. It contains references to information that could only have been inputted by the new administration.

Claims that this document is a year old do not appear to stack up with the technical information contained therein. The current form of Operation Yellowhammer is only weeks old. And it is an assessment based on the goals of the Johnson Government, which is wholly committed to leaving without a deal if necessary - something the former Government was never fully behind.

The Government seems determined to try and hardball a new deal from the EU. It won't work. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, ramped up the threat to end the free movement of EU citizens in the UK in the event of an no-deal scenario, seemingly unaware of the damage this would do to British tourism and investment, not to mention British abroad.

Priti Patel increasingly appears to be pretty vacuous, as she seems to forget that such actions would immediately spark a retaliatory response from the 27 EU members, and those who would bear the brunt of her bullish tactics would be the people of Gibraltar and international police co-operation.

For their part, the DUP continue to cling to the Johnson administration like barnacles on a ship. The DUP's most recent audacious claim was to simply dismiss a survey which suggested a majority in Northern Ireland would accept a sea border.

They never offered a single fact to support their argument. And this is against a very clear backdrop of Northern Ireland now having two Remain MEPs to the DUP one.

Barnacles, like the DUP, are small, but both have an outsized impact. The way to get rid of barnacles is to prevent them from attaching in the first place.

A general election now looms and the slippery Prime Minister will be hoping that the outcome is to detach the DUP from his ship. And with Labour ruling out any confidence and supply deal with the DUP, it may not just be the economy that will be feeling the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit.

If we get into a no-deal scenario with the EU, to paraphrase a line from The Wizard of Oz: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not going to have a United Kingdom for very long."

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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