The U.K. Government’s Worst Case Brexit Scenario Looks a Lot Like ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

September 12, 2019, 8:48 AM UTC

The full scale of the damage a no-deal Brexit could cause to the U.K. was revealed when Boris Johnson’s government published its worst-case scenario in a document it tried to keep secret.

The paper warned of food and fuel shortages, disruption to the supply chain, job losses, public disorder and intense pressure to return to the negotiating table if the U.K. crashes out of the European Union without an agreement. The five-page summary of no-deal planning, code-named Yellowhammer, was released late Wednesday to meet a deadline forced upon the government by Parliament.

The scenario undermines Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertion that the U.K. can cope with a no-deal Brexit, and will further fuel opposition to his strategy to take the U.K. out of the EU “do or die” on Oct. 31. Parliament has already passed a law intended to prevent Johnson forcing through a no-deal Brexit, but he says he’s ready to do it anyway.

“It’s completely irresponsible for the government to have tried to ignore these stark warnings and prevent the public from seeing the evidence,” the opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said in an emailed statement. “Boris Johnson must now admit that he has been dishonest with the British people about the consequence of a no-deal Brexit.”

The documents includes the following scenarios:

  • On day one, as many as 85% of trucks attempting to cross the Dover-Calais straits may not be ready for French customs, blocking flow through the ports — with freight recovering to 50% to 70% of pre-Brexit levels in three months
  • Medicines are “particularly vulnerable” to severe extended delays; some can’t be stockpiled, and for others it’s not practical to stockpile for “expected delays of up to six months”
  • Supplies of some fresh foods will decrease; there will also be a reduced choice of products
  • While the threat to the supply of clean water is “low,” it is possible that hundreds of thousands of people will experience problems
  • Some cross-border U.K. financial services will be disrupted
  • Protests will take place nationwide, sapping police resources
  • Regional traffic disruption could affect fuel distribution
  • Immediate imposition of EU tariffs will “severely disrupt” trade with Ireland, with agriculture and food the hardest-hit sectors
  • No-deal arrangements for the Irish border will be “unsustainable” and force the U.K. back to the negotiating table in days or weeks
  • There could be clashes between U.K. and EU fishing fleets

Rebel Conservative lawmakers teamed up with opposition parties on Monday to force through a vote compelling the government to publish the Yellowhammer documents. The plans were leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper last month.


One paragraph was redacted for what the government said were reasons of commercial confidentiality. The Sunday Times said the section dealt with the impact on oil refineries. EU tariffs will make U.K. gasoline exports uncompetitive, and the government’s decision to set import tariffs on gasoline at 0% will likely result in two refineries closing, costing around 2,000 jobs, it said.

The government expects subsequent strike action at refineries to hit fuel supplies, according to the newspaper.

Members of Parliament also demanded the government release communications between the prime minister and senior advisers on both Operation Yellowhammer and the government’s decision to suspend Parliament, which took effect on Monday night. But Cabinet minister Michael Gove, in charge of no-deal Brexit planning, said the government would not do so.

The advisers “have no right of reply, and the procedure used fails to afford them any of the protections that would properly be in place,” Gove said in a letter to former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who brought the vote in Parliament. “It offends against basic principles of fairness.”

Legal Blow

The administration suffered another blow on Wednesday when a Scottish court ruled Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful, setting up a showdown in the Supreme Court next week.

Johnson’s spokesman said the government will abide by whatever judgment that court comes to. “We have absolute respect for the independence of the judiciary,” James Slack told reporters at a hastily convened briefing.

Johnson has said the suspension is needed so he can lay out his government’s legislative plans in what’s called a Queen’s Speech on Oct.14. While it’s standard practice to suspend, or prorogue, Parliament before such a speech, it’s usually for a matter of days. Johnson has opted for a 5-week prorogation — the longest in decades.

Colin Sutherland, Scotland’s most senior judge, said in the decision that documents including a handwritten note from Johnson dismissing the parliamentary session as a “rigmarole” demonstrated that “the true reason for the prorogation” was to curtail the legislature’s ability to hold the government to account.


His colleague, Judge Philip Brodie, went even further, calling the suspension an “egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behavior.”

Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC that “many people up and down the country are beginning to question the partiality of the judges,” while stressing that he believed them to be impartial. “The more the courts get involved in politics, that is of detriment not only to politics but also to the courts,” Kwarteng said.

Earlier, there were conflicting messages from the EU on Brexit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she’ll “work until the last day” to ensure the U.K. leaves the bloc in an orderly fashion. But Spanish acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said a hard Brexit that seemed “unthinkable” months ago “has now become a more than probable scenario.”

Johnson said in a Facebook Live question and answer session that he sees the mood changing in the EU, after holding meetings with his counterparts in Germany, France and Ireland. “The ice floe is cracking, there is movement under the keel of these talks and we can do this thing absolutely,” he said.

The prime minister rejected reports that he’s seeking to replace the so-called backstop part of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, which would ensure the Irish border remains free of checks by keeping the U.K. tied to EU rules, with a Northern Ireland-only version. That wouldn’t work for the U.K., he said.

“The backstop is going to be removed, I very much hope — I insist,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to come out whole and entire and solve the problem of the Northern Irish border, and I’m absolutely certain we can do that.”

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