The road transport sector was bracing itself for what commentators were predicting – not for the first time – was the beginning of the Brexit endgame, as the longest parliamentary session since the English Civil War drew to a dramatic close.
Over the last two months, the UK has seen the appointment of a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, a vow to leave the European Union come what may on 31 October, and a controversial move to prorogue Parliament.
In early September, a string of major defeats in the Commons led the PM to threaten to table a snap general election for mid-October, but opposition parties blocked it on the grounds that he could later alter the date unilaterally, thus causing an automatic crash-out from the EU while parliament was dissolved.
Instead, opposition MPs and Tory rebels passed a law that would compel Mr Johnson to request a further three-month extension to the Brexit deadline should no deal have been agreed by mid-October. The prime minister has said he will not countenance this, while simultaneously insisting that he will obey the rule of law – suggesting the government may believe there is some way around the obligation.
The increased political turmoil at Westminster came as a leaked analysis commissioned by the government reportedly suggested that lorries queuing at Dover on day one after a no-deal Brexit could face two-day delays in a worst-case scenario, with an average wait of around 36 hours and queues of up to 8,000 trucks. Currently, vehicles wait at the port for around two minutes.
Even at best, and with maximum preparation by businesses, the documents – which were seen by broadcaster Sky News in early September and had been compiled within the previous fortnight – predict waits of two to three hours, with half of vehicles waiting for at least eight. The consequences, the analysis predicts, are the cancellation by fleets of many vehicles’ journeys, leading to shortages on supermarket shelves and of hospital supplies.
Road Haulage Association (RHA) managing director for policy and public affairs, Rod McKenzie, said the cited delays would be “crippling” to sections of industry, while Labour Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer called for the new transport secretary Grant Shapps, appointed in late July as part of Mr Johnson’s cabinet shake-up, to make a statement to MPs on the situation.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the transport and travel workers’ union TSSA, echoed his call, suggesting that Mr Shapps and the government were “either in a state of utter panic or unwilling to face the reality of a no deal Brexit on our transport sector”.
“Delays at Dover, or to services on the Eurostar, Eurotunnel or anywhere else in and out of the country would be deeply damaging. This cannot be allowed to happen…
“It’s easy to see that we are dealing with a government hellbent on a policy of economic idiocy. They think they can simply cross their fingers and hope everything will be alright. It’s not good enough and Mr Shapps must come to Parliament and tell the public what is going on.
“Sadly, however, it looks very much as though we have gone from Failing Grayling to Mishaps Shapps.”
In late August, Shapps’ Department for Transport (DfT) did however announce that it would spend £30 million on upgrading infra-structure, including at ports and on road links; and was calling on English ports to bid for a share of £10m to boost capacity and maintain throughput, which could be spent on additional parking for HGVs or improving traffic systems.
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Of course we welcome government’s commitment to making ports Brexit ready, but as with all infrastructure improvements they take time, and that is a commodity that we do not have.”
Members’ concerns were much more immediate, he said.
“There is still a lack of clarity as regards the paperwork and processes needed to maintain free-flowing traffic. If one haulier is found to have incorrect documents then the knock-on effects will be catastrophic. No amount of infrastructure improvements will be able to cope with tailbacks of traffic resulting from one truck having incorrect or missing paperwork.”
Earlier in August, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) called for the government to share its full impact assessment for a no-deal scenario after an earlier leaked report on the Operation Yellowhammer contingency planning had projected a three-month meltdown at ports, as well as fuel shortages.
The leak also raised the spectre of a hard border in Ireland, on the basis that plans to avoid widespread checks on goods transiting the border were likely to prove unworkable.
The government said the document was based on worst-case scenarios.
FTA deputy chief executive James Hookham said: “This is not about the politics of Brexit – for the past three years, FTA has been pressing government for clarity on the trading environment we will be working in once the UK leaves the EU, with only limited success…
“It is disheartening to discover that the government has been concealing the facts which business needs in order to keep Britain trading effectively.
“The news that fuel supplies could be impacted is particularly worrying, considering this would affect the movement of goods both domestically and internationally – as an industry, we remember the impact of the 2000 fuel strike very well, and the chaos which it caused, both for business and for individuals.”
He said that he had written to Michael Gove – now the so-called chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been tasked with cross-departmental oversight of no-deal preparations – urging him to “come clean” on the detail in the report to help logistics businesses prepare for EU exit.
“FTA is still waiting for answers from government to the most critical questions which directly affect the way the sector operates, now and in the future. As an industry, we are resilient and flexible, but can only work with the information we are given.
“To assume that logistics businesses will be able to make sweeping changes to working practices with less than 80 days left before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU is unrealistic at best, and not what we have been led to believe will be needed by government.”