Accelerating work to prepare for a no-deal Brexit should act as a “wake-up call” for MPs, the SNP’s Westminster leader has said, warning that a chaotic and damaging exit from the European Union was looming without swift action.
Parliament returns on Monday for what will be a decisive three months in the UK’s Brexit journey.
And in the most visible demonstration of how close a no-deal Brexit could be, 150 lorries will take part in a dry-run for gridlock at the port of Dover during the Monday rush-hour. The lorries will descend on Manston airfield in Kent, which will act as a holding area in the event of a backlog at Channel ports.
As the UK government dramatically steps up its preparation for a no-deal outcome, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said it would be “insanity” for the UK to crash out of the EU without a Brexit agreement.
The Commons has until 21 January to approve the terms of Brexit put forward by the government, ahead of exit day on 29 March.
However, there is little sign of consensus emerging for any alternative, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s allies in the DUP refusing to back her and Conservative Party members telling pollsters they prefer a no-deal exit.
The lorry testing exercise comes amid concern over the awarding of a contract for emergency ferry services to a brand new company that owns no ships and which was found to have copied the terms and conditions published on its website from a fast food delivery service.
Meanwhile, a dredging firm hired by the government has started work to prepare the port of Ramsgate, 20 miles north of Dover, as a relief route for essential supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The SNP has committed to vote against the Prime Minister’s proposed Brexit deal, but has called on the government to rule out leaving without any agreement with the EU.
The Nationalists say Brexit must be put off by extending Article 50 to allow more time for an alternative to emerge, and that the public must have the final say through a fresh referendum that includes the option of staying in the EU.
Mr Blackford, who has been briefed on the government’s full confidential no-deal plans, said: “I fear we are running out of time to meet the deadlines that are looming, not just in March, but also in January.
“MPs on all sides need to take what the government is doing as a wake-up call, that a no-deal Brexit is unthinkable and must be stopped.
“Every party needs to take their responsibility and do everything in their power to find a way out of this mess. Actually going through with the plans being tested and rolled out would be insanity.”
In a letter to hauliers from the Department for Transport (DfT) and Kent County Council yesterday, officials said “Operation Brock” will see tests run during the morning rush hour at 8am and again at 11am to “establish the safest optimum release rate of HGVs” from Manston Airfield to Dover along local A-roads.
A DfT spokeswoman said: “We do not want or expect a no-deal scenario and continue to work hard to deliver a deal with the EU.
“However, it is the duty of a responsible government to continue to prepare for all eventualities and contingencies, including a possible no deal.
“We will be testing part of Operation Brock to ensure that, if it needs to be implemented, the system is fully functional.”
MPs are due to debate the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal on Wednesday ahead of a “meaningful vote” the following week, but the EU has yet to offer any changes to the controversial Irish border backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland under Brussels regulations to prevent a hard border if no trade deal is agreed by the end of 2020.
Mrs May spoke to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday in an effort to secure more flexibility. A European Commission spokesman said: “President Juncker had a friendly phone call with PM May. They agreed to stay in touch next week.”
The government’s hopes of convincing Conservative Brexiteers of backing the deal were dealt a new blow with the publication of a poll suggesting more than half of grassroots Tories support leaving the EU without an agreement.
In a three-way choice, 57 per cent said they would support leaving the EU without an agreement, while 23 per cent would back the Prime Minister’s deal and 15 per cent would choose to remain. Some 5 per cent had no preference.
The research, carried out by YouGov for the Party Members Project, also suggested a two-way referendum would see 29 per cent of Tory members endorse the PM’s stance, with 64 per cent voting for a no-deal Brexit.
A leading figure in the DUP also closed the door on a compromise, saying there was “no way” the party would support Mrs May’s proposed Brexit deal. DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he was “more alarmed” than ever over the backstop. The comments follow a statement by the DUP’s leader at Westminster rebuffing Downing Street’s efforts to win the Unionists over.
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said on Thursday his party’s “principled objections” to the backstop remain, with no sign of any further concessions from the EU side.
Mr Wilson said yesterday: “It’s not just because of the regulations which Northern Ireland would be subject to with the backstop, but also the fact we would have to treat the rest of the United Kingdom as a third country.”
He also claimed the backstop was “a con trick all along”.