LONDON — The idea was to show that the British government could deal with the chaotic cross-channel truck traffic expected in the event of a cliff-edge, “no-deal” Brexit. But only 89 of the 150 trucks expected showed up for the exercise, despite the offer of $700 to participate. And even those who took part ended up dismissing “Operation Brock” as “window dressing” and “too little, too late.”
As Parliament prepares for a momentous debate over Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular plan to leave the European Union, it is often hard to tell if her government wants to convince people of the utter calamity of a no-deal exit — the better to secure passage of the proposal — or to reassure them that everything is under control. In the event, it seems to be failing at both.
In the past week, it has awarded a $17.5 million contract to provide ferry service to a company with no ferries and conducted the widely mocked Operation Brock.
Far from allaying fears, Michael Gove, the environment minister, gave a speech to a farm group last week in which he warned of devastating 40 percent tariffs on British beef and lamb exports after a no-deal Brexit.
In the traffic exercise, a convoy of 89 trucks, called lorries in Britain, assembled at the disused Manston Airport, around 20 miles from the port of Dover in southeastern England, to test how effectively it could be used to ease congestion in the event of disruption at the border.
Dover is the busiest roll-on, roll-off ferry port in Europe and Britain’s main route for trade with the Continent. Currently, trucks drive on and off the ferries within minutes, not having to bother with document checks. If those are imposed in a no-deal Brexit, the process could take hours, experts warn.
Even if customs officials did not carry out checks, sensitive just-in-time supply chains could be threatened by delays, Andrew Baxter, the managing director of the freight logistics company Europa Worldwide, warned a House of Commons committee last year.
Brexit supporters say the threat of disruption is exaggerated, and that the customs checks already conducted for goods arriving from outside the European Union can be completed within seconds.
It took about an hour for the trucks to make the 33-mile journey to Dover, a trip that experts dismissed as hopelessly inadequate.
“Today’s trial cannot possibly duplicate the reality of 4,000 trucks being held at Manston Airport in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” said Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association.
“Of course, it’s good to have a plan in place but today’s limited scope trial will need to be repeated to stress-test other aspects of the management of thousands of lorries properly,” he added.
The drivers said the test ran smoothly, though they had their doubts over how realistic the exercise was.
“It felt like we were just putting on a show for the E.U. to show that we could cope, but with only 80-something lorries it wasn’t realistic,” Martin Thornton, a driver for the trucking company Eddie Stobart, said in a phone interview. “When we really get locked out, it’s going to be embarrassing.”
Ben Pearce, 38, a driver for Jenson’s Haulage, defended the test run, saying that even without thousands of trucks participating the drill gave the authorities an idea of what to expect at that time in the morning.
“Even if this route got clogged up we have other ports in the south that could be utilized more to relieve some of the pressure from Dover and Kent,” Mr. Pearce said in a phone interview.
The British transport secretary, Chris Grayling, told the BBC that he expected the channel ports to operate normally after Brexit in all possible circumstances, despite advice from the Cabinet Office last month that a no-deal exit could significantly reduce access between Dover and Calais for up to six months.
The government was criticized last week for awarding a ferry contract to a company called Seaborne Freight, which one lawmaker called a “shell company” and is managed by a man who ran a charter shipping company that collapsed in 2014. It then emerged that Seaborne was the only company that bid for the contract.
The firm was also ridiculed for echoing the website terms and conditions of a business specializing in takeout meals. In its original terms of conditions that have since been amended, customers were asked to check their products before “agreeing to pay for any meal/order.”
The Port of Ramsgate, which the contingency service has proposed to use, needs to be dredged before it can accommodate the ships and is unlikely to be ready by March 29, the date set for Britain’s exit, Beverly Martin, the town council member for the harbor area, warned on Monday.
Farmers also sounded the alarm last week, saying that the government’s technical notices confirmed their fears that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for British agriculture.
“A scenario where farmers face an immediate trade embargo for many of their products would have devastating effects, and would severely threaten livelihoods and businesses,” Minette Batter, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, said in a statement.
After observing the government’s no-deal test run in Dover, Tom Peck, the political sketch writer for The Independent, summed up the futility of the government’s preplanned “tailback,” or traffic jam.
He called it “a government-organized tailback, put on to frighten the European Union into believing Britain is ready for no-deal Brexit, and not, as was palpably obvious, in the grip of a full on nervous breakdown.”