A leaked “no-deal” Brexit document caused an uproar inside and outside Great Britain over the weekend. The anti-Brexit camp felt especially vindicated because they believe it supports what they have predicted all along: that a “no-deal” Brexit would bring catastrophe to the United Kingdom.
Former prime minister Theresa May’s administration compiled the document a month ago under the codename “Operation Yellowhammer” and marked it “official sensitive.” A former administration official leaked it to The Sunday Times. It presents what the “remain” camp describes as “the most likely scenario” if the U.K. exits the European Union without any agreement and unprepared.
Here are a few examples from the very gloomy picture:
- The “no new checks with limited exceptions” model to avoid an immediate risk of a return to a hard border on the U.K. side in Ireland is likely to prove unsustainable because of economic, legal, and biosecurity risks. Disruption to key sectors and job losses are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockades.
- Disruption to channel crossings with France may reduce the flow rate to 40%-60% of current levels within one day, and the disruption may last three months or longer before flow rates rise to about 50%-70% of the current level.
- U.K. citizens traveling to and from the EU may be subject to increased immigration checks at border posts.
- Supply chains for medicines and medical products rely heavily on the short straits, which makes them particularly vulnerable to severe delays.
- Certain types of fresh food supply will decrease. Critical elements of the food supply chain may be in short supply. In combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the U.K. but will reduce availability and choice and increase the price.
- Protests and counterprotests will take place across the U.K., using up police resources. Public disorder and community tensions may also rise.
The document contains many sobering predictions. It’s easy to see why the anti-Brexit camp seized the moment and pointed to the document as the latest proof as to why they must prevent a “no-deal” Brexit from happening on Oct. 31.
Presenting a ‘Worst-Case’ Scenario
Top officials of the Johnson administration accused the leaker of playing a “Project Fear” and said the timing of the leak was a “deliberate attempt” to put Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a weak position amid his upcoming meeting with EU leaders about the possibility of a new Brexit deal.
Current administration officials also said the leaked document presents not the “most likely” scenario but the “worst-case” scenario. Created by the previous administration, the leaked document is outdated and doesn’t reflect any preparation done by the current administration.
While it’s very likely that the leak and its timing aimed at sabotaging a “no-deal” Brexit, it should serve as a wake-up call for the Johnson administration, which has been working hard to develop a plan for a “no-deal” Brexit in secrecy. Given that Brits face fear and uncertainty regarding a “no-deal” Brexit, a new communication approach based on honesty, transparency, and thoughtfulness is a much better way to overcome fear than denial.
In the past, the leaders of the “leave” campaign were blamed for painting an overly simplistic and rosy picture to sell the idea of “Brexit.” Their campaign was high on national pride and nostalgia but short on details. The Economist even compiled a few quotes from the “leave” camp, including Michael Gove reassuring the public ahead of the Brexit vote by saying, “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”
Fearing a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit
It turns out Britain doesn’t hold all the cards, and the EU has been playing hardball, trying to make Britain’s exit as difficult as possible so no other EU member country will attempt an exit. Last weekend, after the leaked document was posted online, business groups told the Financial Times that U.K. businesses across the country, especially small businesses, are “seriously underprepared” for a “no-deal” Brexit.
It’s not just businesses that are ill-prepared. Three years after the “leave” vote, many in the U.K., from Parliament to average British citizens, still aren’t ready to face the reality of Brexit. Instead, they bury their heads in the sand and wish Brexit would never happen or advocate for a second referendum to reverse the course.
For them, what’s in the leaked document validates their worst nightmare about a “no-deal” Brexit. In the days ahead, many will object to a “no-deal” Brexit. For the Johnson administration, the best damage control from now until Oct. 31, the Brexit deadline, is to speak the truth.
They must be honest with the British people and not sugarcoat anything. Set realistic expectations. Fear-mongering rumors will abound, so Johnson’s government needs to be very transparent. It ought to acknowledge the inevitable challenges and risks ahead.
Communication Is Key
It should also give British people a regular update on what the government has done or plans to do to mitigate these risks. For example, the leaked document identified the shortage of medicine and medical supply as a significant risk. Johnson’s government can alleviate people’s concern by sharing what the government is going to do to mitigate such risk: Is it in process to stockpile certain medicine, medical supplies, and key chemical ingredients? For how many months? Has it already lined up new suppliers? What changes will be in place to ensure medicine and medical supplies can clear customs in a timely fashion after Oct. 31?
The Brexit deadline is only a little more than two months away. Great Britain is facing an enormous challenge, and the road to victory is hard. But the British people have overcome much worse. Johnson wrote a book about Winston Churchill, so he may well remember that during the darkest hour in World War II, Churchill inspired British people by committing to “victory at all cost, victory in spite of all terror. Victory however hard and long the road may be. For without victory, there is no survival.”
These words still ring true today. The more the Johnson administration can communicate how it is actively and thoughtfully planning for the worst, the more detail it can share, the more likely British people can rest assured things will not fall apart in two and half months.