More than 3,000 troops have been put on standby for a chaotic, no-deal Brexit after Theresa May and her ministers decided to ‘ramp up’ emergency plans for the UK crashing out of the EU.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed that regular and reserve military personnel were now in a state of ‘readiness’ to support government departments to deal with the fall-out of leaving without an agreement with Brussels.
The armed forces plan - swiftly dubbed a ‘Brexit battalion’ - emerged as the cabinet triggered contingency moves to warn families and businesses to brace themselves for a no-deal outcome when the UK leaves the 28-nation bloc next March.
During a lengthy cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister stressed to colleagues that her Brexit deal was “our best mitigation against no-deal”, but said that as a “sensible government” it had to plan for “every eventuality”.
With many Tory MPs still opposed to May’s deal, the Treasury is also unlocking an extra £2bn of extra spending needed to help Whitehall departments cope.
The contingencies include everything from ‘securing more space’ on ferry ships for medical supplies to ensuring planes keep flying.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said planning for a no-deal Brexit was now an “operational priority” within Government.
However continuing splits in May’s top team surfaced in the three-hour meeting. Justice Secretary David Gauke warned hardline Brexiteers that a ‘managed no-deal’ was a fantasy.
“It’s not the job of Cabinet to propagate unicorns, but to slay them,” he said during the meeting, one government source told HuffPost UK.
Chancellor Philip Hammond also lambasted the idea of a ‘managed no-deal’, stating it was “not viable”, while Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd added: “Just because you put a seatbelt on, doesn’t mean you crash the car”.
Both were a direct criticism of ministers like Penny Mordaunt who have floated the suggestion of withholding £20bn from the EU while reverting to basic trade rules.
Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary said the no-deal planning was a ‘political hoax’, but Downing Street stressed that there was no attempt to use the contingency plans to get concessions from either Parliament or the EU.
“The purpose of this is to act as a sensible government. Other considerations don’t come into it,” a spokesman said.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Williamson said: “What we are doing is putting contingency plans in place.
“What this will do is have 3,500 service personnel held at readiness, including regulars and reserves, in order to support any government department on any contingencies they may need.”
Williamson stressed that no request for the 3,500 troops had yet been made by individual departments.
But it is thought the armed forces could be used to provide extra help with emergency shipping and airlifts of vital medical and food supplies, as well as traffic jams at ports.
A No.10 spokesman said: “The MoD [Ministry of Defence] has a very long-standing and important function in relation to sensible planning for contingencies.
“Look back to events in the recent past where the armed forces have performed that function, such as during the Olympics [when private firm G4S failed to provide enough security staff], where they did an excellent job.”
No.10 revealed that Christmas and New Year TV and radio publicity blitz will inform families of how to plan for things like foreign holidays, while 80,000 businesses will be emailed on Friday with official advice on how to keep exports flowing.
All six million UK firms will be told to download a ‘Partnership Pack’ on dealing with VAT, customs and regulations.
Some 106 ‘technical notices’ and 320 ‘workstreams’ across Whitehall were today formally “implemented in full”, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
Civil servants are to have their Christmas holidays cut back to allow departments to plan for the worst through the holiday period, Downing Street suggested.
“People will be working on this over Christmas. We have no-deal plans and we are now going to implement them in full,” the PM’s spokesman said.
But he added: “The government’s focus is on getting a deal. That remains the most likely scenario.”
Speaking in the Commons, Starmer said: “It would be catastrophic for the UK. That’s why no deal has never truly been a viable option. It is a political hoax, and deep down, deep down, I think the government, and this prime minister, knows it.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: “The decision to ramp up the no-deal pressure is psychological warfare. The Conservative government are attempting to scare MPs, businesses and the public with the threat of a no-deal.”