The government is still dodging questions over a no-deal Brexit

Anyone hoping for clarity will need to look elsewhere.

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Nearly a month ago, the government was forced to publish the assumptions underlying its planning for a no-deal Brexit, to great controversy. The Operation Yellowhammer document, first leaked to the Sunday Times and then officially published after MPs voted for it to be made public, warned of public unrest, higher food prices and reduced medical supplies in the event of no deal, and contained the memorable line: “Low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel.”

Today’s government “No-Deal Readiness Report”, a 159-page document detailing preparations for a no-deal Brexit, contains fewer of those headline-grabbing lines. Why? Because, crucially, this is a report on preparations, rather than a set of forecasts for that outcome. This means that it contains a high level of detail about which tariffs will apply after no deal, and what businesses and individuals should do to prepare, but there is nothing, for example, on the expected impact of no deal on the pound sterling, or the impact of expected price rises.

The report puts a determinedly positive spin on the government’s plans, from the Prime Minister’s foreword insisting that he can "confidently" say the UK is prepared to leave the EU without a deal on October 31, to extensive talk of the “opportunities” afforded by a no-deal Brexit. The headline figures are that the government has allocated at £4bn to preparations, and has recruited 1,000 new staff to support flows at the border. Beyond that, however, the deeper you go into the document the more vague the plans are in terms of concrete spending commitments or arrangements with EU member states.

A classic example is one line on cross-border transport operations. The guidance begins with an apparent reassurance: “The government has and will continue working with Member States to ensure that driving licences for commercial drivers operating in the EU will be recognised without need for an International Driving Permit (IDP).”

But one page on, the advice to commercial drivers is that they “may also need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP), depending on the country to which they travel”. In other words, the government has tried to negotiate with member states on this issue, but so far, nothing has been formally agreed. Similar patterns of vague assurances without concrete plans are repeated throughout the document.  

Of particular note is the government’s assurance around fresh food shortages: “There would be no overall shortage of food if the UK leaves without a deal,” the report declares, before conceding: “although, if trade routes are temporarily disrupted, there may be reduced availability and choice of a limited number of short shelf-life fruit and vegetables.” That old “fresh food” vs “food” chestnut.

On Northern Ireland, the report is inconclusive (and makes up only six pages of the 159-page document). Restating the government’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, it says its policy at the border will be “no new checks with limited exceptions” with a commitment that “under no circumstances will it put in place new infrastructure, checks, or controls at the land border for goods moving from Ireland into Northern Ireland”. Similar to Boris Johnson’s proposals to the EU, these arrangements would involve a new customs border, albeit one where checks and controls happen away from the border.

On whether the government has planned for the possibility of no deal stirring up unrest in this post-conflict region, the report is silent. Ultimately, the report leaves a lot unanswered, conceding that “significant risks remain as this policy is temporary in nature and unilateral. The UK government will look to engage with the Irish government and the EU as soon as possible following Brexit.”

Perhaps most significant is the report’s stark advice on national security. Following a no-deal Brexit, the UK will no longer have access to European law enforcement tools, such as the European Arrest Warrant.  While outlining various contingency plans, the conclusion of the report is damning: “these alternative non-EU arrangements are not like-for-like replacements and cannot fully compensate for the loss of EU cooperation tools”.

Apart from those brief stark warnings on food shortages and national security, this report broadly answers a different question to the one many people will be asking. This is a detailed answer to “what is the government doing to prepare for no deal?” and “what do businesses and individuals need to do?” The result is a vague and slippery flurry of numbers and insistences that “the UK is seeking arrangements” on one thing or another. What it doesn’t answer, is whether businesses and individuals have undertaken or are likely to undertake those preparations. On that, the Operation Yellowhammer assumptions were more informative: “Public and business readiness for a no-deal will remain at a low level, and will decrease to lower levels, because of the absence of a clear decision on the form of EU Exit (customs union, no deal etc.) does not provide a concrete situation for third parties to prepare for.”

Crucially, this report avoids answering the one question the public really wants an answer to: “what will no deal look like?”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman