Businesses asked to prioritise essential imports if there's no-deal Brexit

About two years ago I said that it was inconceivable that the British government would risk there being a no-deal Brexit, because the last thing on earth any PM would want to see would be me and my TV colleagues a day or two after we leave the EU standing 15 miles from the white cliffs of Dover and pointing to a jam of lorries stretching as far as the eye could see.

Such images would be such a taint on the reputation of the government that an extended time in the political wilderness would surely be the inevitable consequence.

Well, here we are just over six months from 'B Day' and, in fact, what's happened is that ministers are making provision to requisition the hard shoulder of the M20 and the M26 as the world's largest lorry park, stretching all the way from the Channel Tunnel to the M25 London orbital motorway - as a contingency in case the notorious "No Deal" turns out to be not a mythical monster but the real deal.

Would leaving the EU with a deal be Theresa May's Fault? Credit: PA

Laying the grounds for temporary sequestration of motorway hard shoulders is part of what Brexit champions David Davis, Steve Baker and other former Brexit ministers said they wanted, namely proper planning for a possible no-deal withdrawal from the EU.

The great paradox of course is that they now see this iteration of contingency planning as an extension of Whitehall's and Remainer ministers' Project Fear.

And doubtless all of you will have your own view about whether Brexit without a Withdrawal Agreement and the outline of a plan for a future trading and security relationship with the EU would show us as plucky Britain at Dunkerque or the Charge of the Light Brigade.

But do me a favour and don't shoot me as messenger - because all I am doing is relaying what cabinet ministers and senior officials have told me over the past few days.

The broader story is that government departments have been asked to provide an initial "impact" assessment of a no deal Brexit by the end of the month (there was a flavour of this captured by the snapper Steve Back, who photographed a contingency planning paper entitled "Operation Yellowhammer").

This impact planning includes, for example, asking importers to identify which of the parts and products they obtain from the rest of the EU are most critical, so that those items could be prioritised if customs checks were re-introduced on 30 March 2019, and there was consequential queueing of lorries that led to shortages of goods and food here in the UK.

The port at Dover. Credit: PA

To be clear, even if such lorry checks were as efficient as those at the border between Sweden and Norway, so taking roughly five minutes each, that would still massively narrow the import-export pipeline between the UK and the EU.

Think about it as the equivalent of what happens to traffic speeds on a three-lane motorway when one lane is closed by a crash: we've all been there, and we've all suffered a sharp rise in blood pressure as our journey times have doubled.

Nor can we be clear how long this diminution in the flow of stuff to and from the EU would endure - because broadening the pipe again would require technology not yet in place and many more customs posts.

So for some time, we would "look and feel like a Soviet-era eastern bloc economy" - with government determining which goods and foods should be favoured in a de facto rationing system.

Michel Barnier is the EU's chief neogtiator.

This is not my analogy, by the way, but that of a respected Tory minister.

Would all this actually be the fault of Theresa May and her colleagues?

Well, it doesn't help matters that the customs authorities of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and their political masters are refusing to engage in conversations with British officials and ministers to agree what would happen if the worst came to the worst and the UK were to crash out of the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement.

British ministers tell me that the European Commission is to blame for the absence of bilateral contingency planning of this sort, because Task Force 50, under the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, has instructed EU governments they are forbidden to talk to the UK about formulating plans to keep the trade pipes open.

So maybe if the great calamity happens, and production lines were to go on to three-day weeks for want of parts and supermarkets became a USSR nostalgia-fest, maybe some Brits would engage in the traditional sport of blaming Brussels and the EU.

But most would probably conclude that the clear instructions they gave the government, namely to get the country out of the EU as painlessly as possible, had been bogged up by old-fashioned British government haplessness.