By Isabel Hardman
Are you ready for a no-deal Brexit? Have you stockpiled enough toilet paper? Built a small fort of tinned tomatoes, just in case? Over the next few weeks, government adverts will start warning the British public, businesses and neighbouring countries to prepare for Britain leaving the European Union without a deal, even though the official position of the government is that it still wants an agreement with Brussels.
Ministers insist that they are now preparing properly for this sort of departure on 31 October, and that leaked documents predicting chaos are out of date, wrong, and being released by political opponents who want to scaremonger. They point to the extra £2.1bnbeing spent on protecting the supply of medicines, on ports and important freight routes, and on preparing local authorities. They argue that Boris Johnson’s administration is taking no deal seriously, unlike Theresa May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond.
Even if ministers are right that their preparedness for the physical consequences of no deal are perfect, how sure are they that their colleagues are mentally ready? A number of senior Brexiteers are worried that if Britain does leave without a deal, the main problem might not be that there are what many of them optimistically term “bumps in the road”, but that MPs end up having a massive and very noisy panic attack about the whole endeavour.
MPs have a tendency to panic even in small crises, calling anxiously for anyone even tangentially involved to resign so that they can at least appear to have a handle on the situation. They are much like the relatives regularly observed by doctors on geriatric wards: the ones who are the most demanding of the healthcare professionals invariably turn out to be those who failed to visit their ailing mother for years, and are now taking out their guilt on the poor nursing staff.
When flooding hit the Somerset Levels in the winter of 2013-14, politicians who had paid scant attention to the activities of the Environment Agency suddenly started running around like disturbed ants. One even threatened to take Chris Smith, the boss of the quango, and “stick his head down the loo”. They’re no less brutal with their own parliamentary colleagues: ministerial resignations during bumpy periods are often seen as a way of releasing pressure, rather than actually holding someone accountable for making a mistake.
It will be easy for this pattern to manifest itself again in a “bumpy” no-deal scenario. One Brexiteer fretted to me recently that “if there is no deal, journalists like you are going to find various things that have gone wrong, or a few bins that have fallen over, and then my colleagues are all going to start panicking about what no deal has done to the country, even if these problems were entirely unrelated to Brexit. They’ll start saying, ‘Oh no, this isn’t what I meant at all,’ and will then look around for someone to blame.” Another senior Tory predicts that “we might have another dodgy dossier-style situation, where you get MPs saying, ‘I only supported the evidence I was presented with, but now I’ve changed my mind.’”
Johnson may find this panic hard to weather. Most Conservatives predict that he will win a vote of no confidence if the Labour party calls it in the first week of parliament sitting. But many of them worry that this result will mean the government limps on to a no-deal Brexit without having an election to clear the air. This is one of the reasons why senior Conservatives are making plans for a mid-October poll, which they hope would give Johnson the mandate to demand a new deal from Brussels.
There is also the rather obvious blame game going on between the British government and its European counterparts. If there is no deal, Johnson will want to say it was recalcitrant EU leaders who forced Britain out in this way. Similarly European negotiators want to impress upon anyone who will listen that Britain is already dead set on leaving without a deal, and is only throwing up silly suggestions on the backstop that it knows could never work.
If the EU fails as a convenient scapegoat, No 10 can also blame the May government for failing to prepare properly, and remainers in parliament for undermining the negotiations. This will drive an even deeper wedge through the Conservative party.
Most ministerial attention is currently focused on what the first two weeks of September will bring, rather than on how MPs might behave in November. There are some plans to try to stop parliamentarians panicking. Michael Gove is likely to do weekly statements to the House of Commons on no-deal preparations, so MPs can’t say they weren’t informed, and the prime minister is holding regular dinners with MPs. Johnson on Sunday tried to prepare his colleagues and the public, saying: “I do not want at this stage to say there won’t be unforeseen difficulties.” His top adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been pushing ministerial aides to look for possible problems in their own departments in order to avoid a “black swan event” – an unexpected and severe crisis.
The problem with genuine black swans, though, is that they only ever appear obvious once they have surfaced. Anything special advisers find now isn’t what will cause them the most trouble in the future. All they can do is hope that the most unexpected thing of all happens, which is that MPs don’t conform to their usual pattern, and manage not to panic.