Richard North, 24/08/2020  

A dull Sunday morning was slightly enlivened by The Sun which had evidently stumbled on a print copy of a powerpoint presentation setting out government thoughts on contingency planning for TransEnd.

Possibly from over a month ago – with a date of July 2020 – the first page header reads: "Preliminary set of Reasonable Worst Case Scenario Planning Assumptions to support civil contingencies planning for the end of the Transition Period" (typed exactly as seen).

Although The Sun says it has seen the whole document, we are only allowed to see the top sheet, and must then rely on the paper's own view of what it contains. I suppose that's a version of taking back control.

Before dwelling on what we're told of the contents, it is germane to note two things from the title. The first is that the word "preliminary" is being used. This is somewhat worrying in its own right.

The authors - the Cabinet Office's EU Transition Task Force – even in July should have been way past making merely preliminary planning assumptions. Given that a no-deal or "bare-bones" deal has been on the cards for some time, one might have expected planning to be considerably more advanced.

The second thing is the terminology. If the civil servants are talking about supporting "civil contingencies planning", that rather suggests that they are thinking about invoking the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which presupposes that they are thinking in terms of emergency planning.

In what is described as a "horror show", though, we can see from The Sun's rendition that this is precisely what they have in mind. Their scenario not only includes a bodged TransEnd, but a resurgence of Covid-19 combined with seasonal flu, with winter floods thrown in for light entertainment, all running in to create a perfect storm.

They also posit the possibility of animal disease ripping through the countryside due to shortages of medicines, although medicines might not be the issue. The last foot and mouth disease epidemic stretched government resources to the limit, with the Army having to be called in. A repeat might be almost impossible to manage.

That apart, there is a suggestion that parts of Britain may be hit by shortages of power – possibly as we lose electricity supplies through the interconnectors – and there may be shortages of petrol as 8,500 trucks get stuck at Dover.

That last bit, though, doesn't seem logical. We don't import refined petroleum or even feedstock via road tankers. But there could be a shortage of specialist lubricants and even spare parts to keep power stations going – which, I recall – was an issue during the 2000 fuel protests.

We also see the old favourites, such as a shortage of food (presumably not of toilet rolls, though), but there is also the interesting prospect of military airdrops to the Channel Islands to prevent them running out of food.

It looks as if the Royal Navy will be busy as well, sending out patrols to stop vigilante British fisherman clashing with hundreds of illegal European fishing boat incursions. This could end up being a variation on the theme of the Cod Wars, just supposing the Navy can be spared from seeing off illegal immigrants crossing the Channel.

Then, there is the Army. Assuming it is not organising the mass graves of millions of stricken animals (or humans) and imposing an illegal martial law on the countryside, there is talk of troops being drafted onto the streets to help the police keep order. Apparently, 1,500 are already on standby.

One might ask why the government is waiting. In some areas of London, it is pretty obvious that the police have already lost control. A squadron of Challenger IIs rumbling down Tottenham High Road might help to focus minds.

However, it would rather signal that the government itself had lost control, if the military has to be used for public order purposes. The consequences could be rather unpredictable, especially if we see the "Cummings effect" in play, otherwise known as the "f**k you" syndrome, where people start emulating this top advisor's reverence for the law.

Some of the reaction might constitute "coordinated industrial action", which might in the first instance hit public services, especially as one in 20 local authorities could run out of money and be forced to shed large numbers of staff. This, it is believed, could also spark a crisis in social care.

Other areas of intervention may include "mandatory control of UK goods", although precisely what that means hasn't been specified. But there is reference to between 40 and 70 percent of hauliers travelling across the Channel not being prepared. This sounds like the "Kent access permit" system coming into play.

The planners, however, are also warning that the combination of "pandemic influenza", severe flooding, a Covid second wave and an unruly exit from the EU transition period could cause "a systemic economic crisis" with major impact on disposable incomes, unemployment, business activity, international trade and market stability.

Even without a combination of issues, it is pretty certain we have an intensifying economic crisis on our hands, and it is too soon to tell what is going to happen to employment – or how badly hit it will be. Once the "Brexit effect" kicks in, it will certainly add stress to an already stressed system.

All this is, of course, a very far cry from the heady days of 2016 when David Davis was assuring us that "There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside", Michael Gove was claiming that, "The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want", and John Redwood was jabbering in like fashion that "Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards".

This, with a government which is displaying an affinity for serial incompetence, means that Johnson and his administration not only have a serious credibility problem, they have largely exhausted the fund of goodwill that is necessary if coordinated community actions are to work.

On top of the "Cummings effect", many people are simply going to follow in the footsteps of the politicians, looking after number one, with enforcement of the seemingly random and incoherent central diktats becoming harder and harder to enforce.

I don't think it was entirely a coincidence that police in Birmingham found themselves having to break up more than 70 "illegal" parties as further Covid-19 controls were in the offing. This is pushback against what are seen as tiresome and increasingly irrelevant government restrictions.

If you add food shortages to the mix, and then other restrictions – such as the rationing of food or other commodities – you are looking at riots becoming a distinct possibility, on top of wide-ranging civil disobedience from a sullen and uncooperative population.

We have yet to see the worst, of course, and the very worst may not happen, even if the Guardian's William Keegan is suggesting that Johnson is probably the worst British prime minister since Lord North, the man who lost the American colonies.

I do wish they'd leave Lord North out of it. I already have difficulties enough getting past immigration control in the United States, without my name being added to the "stop" lists in every port.

One can see what Keegan means though, even if there are some who think that Johnson will stay to see TransEnd through, to go down in the history books as the man who took us out of the EU, and then do a runner – if the party doesn't dump him first.

Whether he stays or goes – and one would obviously prefer the latter – we are looking down the nose at a monumental mess, with nobody of stature poised to take control. And that will be Johnson's real legacy – a legacy of chaos.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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