First of all, it effectively invites any business which can do so to relocate, adding to the stream which have already done so, or to incur contingency planning costs. None of this will be reversed: decisions made and costs borne will be forever and will have an impact for years to come. The same applies to the £4.2 billion of government spending allocated since 2016 to the preparations.
But that figure is illustrative of the strange combination of damage and pointlessness of the whole exercise. £2bn of it will not be allocated until after ‘Brexit day’ anyway, so it is both expensive and purely symbolic as ‘preparation’. In much the same way, the government’s preparation advice is so vague as to be operationally useless to businesses anyway. Similarly, 3500 troops are to be put on stand-by – but to do what is entirely unclear. No government department has requested them. It’s just posturing, as are the reported COBRA emergency committee meetings.
Secondly, these announcements may be designed to strike fear into MPs minded to vote against May’s deal, but they have the effect of creating fear amongst the general public. That is morally unconscionable in itself – especially when it makes people worry that they will not be able to get the medicines they need, or that their families may be split up – but it also carries the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies.
It’s by no means unlikely, or unreasonable, that people will begin to stockpile food and other essentials. We know from previous supply disruptions that panic buying quickly transforms fears into reality. With the government telling supermarkets to maximise their stock in case of a no deal Brexit, why wouldn’t individuals do the same?
It is normally the role of government to seek to dampen down public alarm. We currently have a government cynically choosing to ramp it up. Perhaps this will appeal to a certain kind of Brexiter, steeped in Second World War mythology. But to anyone who understands the present-day realities of international just-in-time supply chains it carries the real possibility of things spiralling quickly and dangerously out of control.
Theresa May has said that if her deal is not passed by parliament then the alternatives are no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all. That is fair comment. But, if so, then the contingency plan should be ‘no Brexit at all’, via rescindment of the Article 50 notification, rather than ‘no deal’ because rescindment is the far safer option.
That would hardly violate the 2016 Referendum, because ‘no deal’ was never proposed to the electorate. On the contrary, the official Vote Leave campaign stated that “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any formal legal process to leave”. That was always a nonsense – it would be incompatible with Article 50 – but many will have believed it.
At all events, the no deal scenario was never put to the electorate and if it had been it’s inconceivable that a majority would have voted for it. It has no democratic mandate whatsoever.
We are now approaching a very dangerous moment of national polarisation, including threats of political violence, of a sort unknown in modern British political history. It is completely reprehensible that the government, under the guise of ‘pragmatism’, is inflaming rather than defusing that danger.