Leigh Lewis: My real worries for a no-deal Brexit are the unknown unknowns

The leak of the Cabinet Office’s Operation Yellowhammer contingency planning shows how much government is working on mitigating the risks it can predict from a no-deal Brexit. But the government cannot prepare for things it doesn’t know will happen

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By Sir Leigh Lewis

20 Aug 2019

As Mike Tyson allegedly said: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’.

I have been reminded of that reading both the dire predictions and the equally soothing reassurances that are now the newspapers’ staple diet about the possible impact of the ever more likely no-deal Brexit on 31 October. Depending on your personal preference we are living either through the last desperate throw of the ‘Project Fear’ dice or the prospect of life-threatening shortages of fuel, food and medicines as set out in the leaked ‘Yellowhammer’ dossier from the Cabinet Office.

For myself I have little doubt that some of the predictions of doom and disaster are overdone. That is both because it is in the nature of contingency planning to plan for, and thus articulate, the worst and also because I have considerable respect for the civil service’s ability to identify and mitigate the most acute possible consequences of a no deal Brexit. I am certain that the mountains of contingency planning that have and are being undertaken in Whitehall will have markedly improved our ability to cope with many of those consequences.


So that’s all right then? Well sadly not and for two main reasons.

The first is that, while we can prepare for those things which are within our control, it’s almost impossible to prepare for what the EU are or are not going to do. One thing that is absolutely certain is that if we do indeed leave without a deal on 31 October the EU are going to feel no sense of commitment or obligation to us whatsoever. Quite the reverse; they will be only too happy to see us sink into the mire, if that does indeed happen, if only to ensure that no other member state ever contemplates going the same way again.

That does not mean that they will seek to engineer chaos for its own sake. They will have their own practical interests to protect and where those happen to coincide with the UK’s, we will be the beneficiaries. But the key point is that where those interests do not coincide, they will act purely in their own interests. Chaos in both London and Paris, no thank you; chaos in London but not in Paris, ‘c’est la vie’. And even the more instinctively anglophile Berlin is not going to lift a finger, or spend a euro, to help us out of a mess that they think is totally of our own making.

But that is not the main reason why I am less than sanguine about the consequences of a no deal Brexit. The second, and even more important reason, why I think it may well be far from alright on the night, and in the days, weeks and months to follow, is the sheer unpredictability of what may happen.

In my five years as a permanent secretary we were up with the best of them in having risk registers, mitigation strategies, contingency planning and disaster recovery rehearsals. And they were all valuable and they all helped. But none of them protected you against the one that no one saw coming. They were the ones that hit you out of a clear blue sky; the huge knock-on consequences of the loss by HMRC of a memory stick containing the entire child benefit population; the leaking of a document you didn’t even know existed; the failure of a piece of IT buried so deep in a legacy system that no one any longer knew it was even there, let alone what it did or how to replace it.

My real worry for a no deal Brexit are the similarly unknown unknowns. The ones that we haven’t planned for because they simply aren’t on anyone’s radar; the ones that aren’t in the Yellowhammer dossier at all; the ones that we’ll only know have hit us when, to take the Mike Tyson analogy, they actually have.

Can more be done? For the government to stop posturing and seek seriously to reach a deal with the EU in the very few weeks we have left would be a good start. But I fear the die may now be cast. In which case only time is going to tell what will actually happen. That is what, I suspect, my successors today in Whitehall are privately thinking, if not publicly saying.

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