People complain of Brexit uncertainty, but uncertainty will not end with Brexit

London Letter: when government says it is Brexit ready it means it has made all the preparations it can. It doesn’t mean traders are ready

Four months before Britain is due to leave the EU, a no-deal Brexit is the favoured option for many Conservatives, as well as for the Brexit Party and its supporters. Both Tory leadership candidates have promised to leave without a deal unless they can renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.

And French president Emmanuel Macron said the EU must not be afraid of the worst-case scenario "which is always a possible option, and at the end of the day will be the responsibility of the British".

But could Britain cope with a no-deal Brexit? That was the question at an Institute for Government event this week, which concluded that Britain could probably cope – but not necessarily very well.

Karen Wheeler, who has just resigned as the official in charge of co-ordinating Britain's border plans after Brexit, said it was important to understand what "readiness" for a no-deal Brexit means.


“What it doesn’t mean is everything will be fine,” she said.“There’s what the government has to do. There’s what the industry and the operators who run the border have to do. And there’s what traders and people using the border have to do.”

When the government says it is ready it means it has made all the preparations it can. But it doesn’t mean that traders and businesses are ready, or that they will not face delays at the border if they are not fully prepared.

Two-thirds of Britain’s companies say a no-deal Brexit would have a bad impact on them, but only about half have done any planning. Allie Renison from the Institute of Directors said one reason businesses were not preparing is because they don’t know what they should be preparing for or what form a no-deal Brexit will take.

Plan for next

“You’re starting to see people wanting anything that looks like certainty. But once you scratch that further and once you realise what it means, it means that the uncertainty does not end. The uncertainty about whether or not you’re in the EU ends, but it doesn’t mean that you have any certainty about what to plan for next,” she said.

In the House of Lords on Wednesday, peers warned about the potentially catastrophic consequences of a no-deal Brexit not just for the economy but for the union and especially for Northern Ireland.

And former diplomat John Kerr reminded the House that attempting to negotiate a deal with the EU after article 50 expires will be much tougher for Britain.

“Under article 50 the position of the 27 is decided by qualified majority, meaning that we cannot be held to ransom by any single member state. After October 31st we could be.”

Boris Johnson is confident that if the EU knows that Britain is seriously willing to walk away without a deal it will agree to change the Brexit deal. And he has promised to suspend Britain's £39 billion divorce bill "in a state of creative ambiguity" over the talks.

Johnson believes that, because of his experience as the Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Brussels, he understands how the EU works and how best to persuade its leaders to compromise. But when Johnson arrived in Brussels 30 years ago the EU had 12 member states and the single market had not yet been established, to say nothing of the Schengen zone and the euro. It's a very different entity today.

Modest concession

EU governments did not admire him as foreign secretary but some hope that the protean Johnson could deliver a majority at Westminster if he won a modest concession that he could present as a great breakthrough. His rhetoric during the Conservative leadership election and his embrace of the most hardline Brexiteers has made such a compromise less likely.

Although Dublin and Brussels insist that there can be no change to the withdrawal agreement, they know that some change to the backstop is needed to give the new prime minister any chance of ratifying the deal. That could mean a timetable for the introduction of alternative arrangements to replace the backstop or even some kind of time limit.

The danger is that Johnson’s misreading of Brussels and the siren call of his hardline Eurosceptic advisers will leave him unable to move towards a negotiable demand. In those circumstances a no-deal Brexit could be unavoidable, and Dublin and its partners would have no incentive to move from their current position that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated.