Whitehall’s no-deal Brexit naïveté

There is considerable straw-clutching in Whitehall and Westminster about the impact of a no-deal Brexit.

For example, a respected and experienced minister contacted me last night to give me the good news that the European Commission had decided that in the event of no-deal the ports of Dover and Folkestone would be kept open “for nine months with no checks”.

The minister had been given the great news in an internal departmental briefing.

“Wow” I thought. And then “you what!”

Because I had read the no-deal planning papers put out by the European Commission, and had somehow missed this dramatic capitulation by the EU, that would see the continuation of frictionless trade in goods at the UK’s most important border with the EU’s single market, to avert those feared shortages of medicines, and food and car parts.

I then immediately contacted EU sources, to be met with responses of utter amazement.

There would be no such softening or sweetening of no deal, I was told.

Here is how one well-placed source reacted to the minister’s optimism: “Totally wrong. 30 March: all EU rules on imports and exports apply. Duties, controls if relevant.”

So what on earth made UK officials think otherwise?

Well they appear to have chronically misunderstood a clause on road haulage, which would allow UK hauliers temporarily still to deliver stuff to the EU - though not point-to-point within the EU - and read this as a waiver on customs checks.

It is not, I am told.

It is simply a concession to shelter hauliers on both sides of the channel from the most extreme financial costs of Brexit. But it would not avert crippling bottlenecks at Dover, and the transformation of Kent - in the words of a more realistic official - into the “world’s largest lorry park”.

A more sober reading of the Commission’s no deal preparations says the EU has decided on humanitarian grounds to avert the most extreme impact of no deal, such as banks going bust and planes being grounded.

But that is simply to say that in the event of no deal there will still be stale bread for us, in an economic sense. But cake? Forget it.