Boris Johnson has told civil servants that preparing for a no-deal Brexit must be their “top priority” as all leave for Government advisers was cancelled in the run-up to Britain’s EU withdrawal.
In a letter to officials, the British Prime Minister said he would “very much prefer” to leave on October 31 with a new agreement with Brussels in place, but he recognised that “this may not happen”.
“That is why preparing urgently and rapidly for the possibility of an exit without a deal will be my top priority, and it will be the top priority for the Civil Service too,” he wrote.
The disclosure is likely to be seen as a further attempt to ratchet up pressure on the EU, driving home the message that the Government is serious about leaving at the end of October, with or without a deal.
It came as Mr Johnson’s chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister emailed all special advisers on Thursday informing them that no holidays would be allowed until the end of October.
“There is serious work to be done between now and October 31 and we should be focused on the job,” the email, seen by The Guardian, said.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Sajid Javid has said he is not “frightened” at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, insisting the British economy would eventually emerge even stronger.
“If it comes to no deal, it is not anything I am frightened of,” he told Sky News.
“I am confident that if that is what it comes to, we will not just get through it, the UK will end up stronger and more resilient. It is something that we can deal with.”
However, the resolute message from Whitehall risked being undermined by transport minister George Freeman, who warned no deal would be a “disaster” unless it was followed by an early trade agreement with the EU.
Mr Freeman, Theresa May’s former policy chief, said the Conservatives could be out of power for 20 years if Britain was forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules for an extended period of time.
Speaking on HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast, he said: “I do not agree with those very few hardliners who think that WTO long term would be satisfactory.
“I don’t at all, I think it would be an absolute disaster and politically for my party would see us out of office for two decades, I think.
“More importantly, I think it would be very damaging to the stability of this country.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is urging Britain’s top civil servant to rule that the Prime Minister cannot push through a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a general election campaign.
It would be an outrageous, anti-democratic abuse of power for Boris Johnson – elected as Prime Minister by fewer than 100,000 unrepresentative Tory members – to force through No Deal in the middle of a General Election campaign.
My letter to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill: pic.twitter.com/U3p6FHKVFJ
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) August 9, 2019
It follows reports that if Mr Johnson is defeated in a vote of confidence when MPs return to Westminster in September, he will seek to delay polling in an election until after October 31, by which time the UK will be out of the EU.
In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, the Labour leader said it would represent an “unprecedented, unconstitutional and anti-democratic abuse of power”.
He said the Cabinet Office’s election “purdah” rules made it clear that policy decisions on which a new government “might be expected to want to take a different view” should be postponed until after polling day.
Mr Corbyn asked Sir Mark to confirm that if the UK is due to leave the EU without a deal while an election is under way, the Government should seek another time-limited extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process to allow the voters to decide.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said Sir Mark would respond to Mr Corbyn’s letter “in due course”.