Bill Jamieson: Brexit's new Project Fear threatens liberal democracy

Brexit scare stories about stockpiling food may ultimately play into the hands of extremists, writes Bill Jamieson.

Willl post-Brexit Britain be forced to rely on helicopters to ferry supplies to vulnerable people? (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Willl post-Brexit Britain be forced to rely on helicopters to ferry supplies to vulnerable people? (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Don’t panic: Corporal Jones is on the case! “Army on standby for Brexit emergency,” ran the front page headline in one of the serious Sunday papers. “Ministers,” it revealed, “have drawn up plans to deliver food, medicines and fuel in the event of shortages if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal.”

Helicopters and army trucks, it added, would be used to ferry supplies to vulnerable people outside the southeast struggling to obtain the medicines they need. And supermarkets are warning their suppliers to stockpile supplies such as tea and coffee.

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Reassured? Absolutely not. So much for the sunny uplands of life outside of the EU and those great global vistas that were due to stretch before us. ‘Project Inspire’ has been dumped in favour of a new Project Fear as support for the Prime Minister’s proposed Chequers deal has foundered across Tory constituencies.

My first instinct was that this was a spoof alarm put out by Brexiteers to ridicule the forebodings of Remainers about the coming end of the world should we indeed “crash out”. What could be more alarming than the prospect of food supplies being delivered to our local Sainsburys by armoured trucks? Or our NHS paracetemol pills being dropped by RAF helicopters?

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But such contingencies, it seems, are part of the Government’s forward planning in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Remarks by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab to MPs on the Brexit committee are only slightly more nuanced. In the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the Government, he said, would “make sure that there is adequate food supply”, but when asked who was stockpiling, he added: “It would be wrong to describe it as the Government doing the stockpiling.” This, presumably, would be left to farmers, food-and-drink distributors and supermarkets. This has drawn snorts of derision from famers and food retailers alike.

Full details of the Government’s contingency plans are to be revealed later this autumn, but it is hard to avoid the impression that an attempt is being made to scare voters and encourage us to accept the Chequers deal – or whatever deal the European Commission allows – rather than resort to WTO rules. When the “managed ambiguity” of Olly Robbins fails, paint a dire alternative.

But this is not the first time we have been round the tracks with this tactic – and with questionable success. Project Fear Mark One, deployed in the Scottish independence referendum, was rejected by some 45 per cent of voters despite the best efforts of the Treasury, the Bank of England and top UK Government ministers. Nor has it stopped demands for a second referendum.

Project Fear Mark Two, deployed in the EU referendum, had the then chancellor, the Treasury and Bank of England Governor warning of a recession, a collapse of investment, tumbling house prices, a plunging stock market and a rise in unemployment. But it failed to prevent a majority of UK voters – some 17.4 million or 52 per cent — opting to vote ‘Yes’ for withdrawal.

More damning for the promoters of this Project Fear was that there was no recession, no collapse of investment, no house price slump, and the stock market went on to hit new highs and numbers in work climbed to a new record. Of course, it could still all go wrong tomorrow. Like those fundamentalist sects whose warnings of Armageddon do not materialise on the specified day, there’s always Cataclysm Tomorrow.

But the more worrying consequence this time around is that the more they hear official talk of emergency measures, controlled fuel distribution and food-and-drink stockpiling, the more likely it is that the public will take matters into its own hands and start stockpiling on their own. Queues form at cash dispensers and supermarkets as people, distrustful of official assurances, start to make their own personal provision. The aisles of tinned foods become depleted, dried food disappears, though it is more likely the alcohol shelves would be the first to suffer Empty Shelf Syndrome. Where’s the Waitrose Essentials coffee, dear? At the back of the garage with the drums of cereal beside the emergency freezer.

Already there are reports that the NHS has started stockpiling drugs and that spirits giant Diageo may be sending over extra bottles to Europe in case of a transport crisis after Brexit day. So why shouldn’t the rest of us join in? Remarks by Government minister Chris Grayling that we should start growing more fruit and and vegetables to reduce reliance on imports have been dismissed by Laurence Olins, the outgoing chairman of British Summer Fruits, as “absolute and utter tripe”. His members were finding it hard enough to find sufficient pickers.

Food industry experts, reported the Financial Times, say Mr Raab’s stockpiling idea not only betrays a lack of understanding about how the UK’s just-in-time food supply chain works, it also ignores the fact that the UK lacks sufficient storage capacity in which to chill food. And the British Retail Consortium warned, “Retailers do not have the facilities to house stockpiled goods and in the case of fresh produce, it is simply not possible to do so. Our food supply chains are extremely fragile.”

An autumn dominated by stories like this would be the perfect breeding ground for panic stocking by consumers. The hope among supporters of the Chequers deal is that, even if this is further diluted by demands from the European Commission, MPs and the public will fall reluctantly in line. “Brexit means Brexit” will come to mean something quite different from what voters imagined.

And how might that go down? Many ‘Yes’ voters – the majority in the single biggest poll turn-out in UK history – will feel the Government has betrayed them. It is hard to envisage that Conservative voters would rally round Mrs May in the resulting storm. Voters, utterly fed up with Government dissemblage and fudge, would want shot of the whole Brexit mess. The least worst outcome, some believe, would be a retreat into political disillusion and apathy. But that would leave the UK parliament at the mercy of extremists of the far right or left. The promoters of Project Fear should take care that they do not so undermine public trust that a liberal democracy itself is its fateful casualty.