Emergency preparations for a no-deal Brexit have been stood down “with immediate effect” as Boris Johnson’s deal is expected to be approved by MPs.
Civil service chiefs who have spent many months working on contingency plans, known as Operation Yellowhammer, were told to bring them to a halt two days before Christmas, Sky News has learnt.
According to a leaked letter – marked “Official Sensitive” and sent by the most senior official at the Department for Exiting the EU to senior officials on December 23 – staff will no longer be deployed on the plans, as the prime minister’s Brexit deal is expected to be approved by MPs, paving the way for Britain’s exit from the EU this month.
The contingency plans were first delayed last spring after Theresa May sought an extension to Britain’s EU membership, and again in October when Boris Johnson was forced to delay Brexit.
But Mr Johnson refused to confirm during the election campaign that preparations for no-deal would cease, telling journalists in late November that the UK would remain in a “state of readiness”.
Government officials have privately expressed concerns that Britain faces another potential no-deal “cliff edge” at the end of this year, if a trade deal with the EU cannot be struck within the 11-month timescale the prime minister has set out; or if he strikes a deal in which Britain diverges dramatically from EU rules and there is disruption for businesses.
The letter from Clare Moriarty, permanent secretary at the Brexit department, states: “In the light of the successful vote at the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Friday, the Prime Minister has now confirmed the Government’s intention to stand down no deal planning for 31 January 2020 with immediate effect.”
No deal Brexit plans were stood down “with immediate effect” just before Christmas, according to letter seen by Sky News.
Operation Yellowhammer shelved as Britain prepares to leave with PM’s deal this month.
— Tamara Cohen (@tamcohen) January 6, 2020
She tells senior figures in other departments that “new spending” for plans to leave without a deal this month “should not be authorised” and staff deployed to other departments to work on it “should now remain in their home departments.”
But Ms Moriarty states that the government will now focus on delivering the current withdrawal deal and “being ready for the end of the implementation period in all circumstances”.
The prime minister was asked about the Yellowhammer plans during the election campaign and said that if he won and Brexit happened before January 31, “those preparations would be extremely valuable” for a later date.
He told an audience that it was right to “keep [them] in a state of readiness” as the government tries to negotiate a free-trade deal by the end of this year, adding: “Of course preparations will remain extant, there’s no reason to dismantle them.”
When Operation Yellowhammer was revealed last summer, it emerged that the government was preparing for a three-month meltdown at ports, and possible shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Experts say the plan to stand down the contingency preparations for 31 January makes sense, given that contracts to keep medicines in refrigerated warehouses and bring in emergency fuel supplies will not be needed.
Operation Brock, the plan to cope with lorry queues in Kent, has also been officially stood down in the past few days.
A government spokesperson last night confirmed: “In light of the successful vote at Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, we decided to step down Government’s preparations for leaving the EU without a deal.
“We are confident that we will ratify the Brexit deal by 31 January. This will allow Government to focus on the people’s priorities in 2020, including the NHS and levelling up innovation, infrastructure and opportunities across the country.”