Police fear the fallout from a “no-deal” Brexit could lead to “widescale disruption and dangers for the general public” and have warned they may not have the resources to cope.
Officers also say they have had “limited information” from the government about how to prepare for Brexit, fear a return of violence to Northern Ireland and have raised the spectre that rationing may need to be introduced to fend off panic buying.
In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Simon Kempton, the operational policing lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said police forces would be facing “a very, very steep learning process” if the United Kingdom were to leave the EU without a deal.
He described that possibility as “the worst case scenario”.
When he was asked whether British police forces could cope with such a scenario, he replied “at the moment, no I don’t”.
The warnings come after a series of resignations from senior figures in Theresa May’s government. Without agreement, the UK could crash out of the EU at the end of March without a deal.
Mr Kempton said delays at border crossings could disrupt the flow of food, medicines and essential supplies, which could lead to disorder.
“This is 2018, it’s the year people dialled 999 because KFC ran out of chicken. If that can happen, imagine what will happen if we start to see food or medical supply shortages.
“We live in a liberal democracy. Protest is good, protest is part of being a democracy.
“Where that moves into disorder, though, to violence – that’s the concern. And where people can’t feed themselves, potentially, where people can’t get their insulin, potentially, it’s a real concern that those protests might escalate into disorder.
“That would obviously need policing and that brings dangers for the general public.”
The government has played down the dangers that could come with a no-deal.
A spokesperson said: “While the chances of no-deal have been reduced considerably, the government will continue to do the responsible thing and prepare for all eventualities, in case a final agreement cannot be reached.
“The UK and the EU have taken a decisive step forward, agreeing the provisional terms of the UK’s smooth and orderly exit from the EU and making significant progress on the outline terms of our future relationship.”
Mr Kempton said there are no obvious precedents in modern times for the sort of challenges he describes.
Seven years ago, there were riots on the streets of London, with disturbances spreading to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and beyond.
He told me those riots stretched the police, with “15,000 officers moved to London – and we’ve lost 22,000 since them so we don’t have those resources any more”.
“When we moved those 15,000 officers, we started to impact on local policing in other areas and we had some slack.
“We don’t have any slack at all now. In fact we don’t have enough resources to do day-to-day policing, so if we have various seats of disturbance then that’s a huge issue that we have to plan for.”
One option would be to enlist the support of the military, which he said the police were “having to consider”, although Mr Kempton said their role should be limited.
He said: “If we were that low on resources and demand was that high that we had to start asking the military to step up and assist us in our day-to-day job then that is a real line in the sand.
“It’s something we haven’t had to do before and I hope it won’t be necessary.”
He did, however, tell Sky News that another emergency measure could be necessary: rationing. Although petrol was briefly rationed in the 1970s, food has not been controlled in the UK since 1954.
Mr Kempton said: “I think we need to start considering how we manage demand. One of the things that supermarkets might have to consider is informal rationing so you can only have three bottles of milk not a trolley full of milk.”
Mr Kempton said his plans assumed that a no-deal Brexit would cause delays at every port in the country, including Dover.
“We would have to instigate measures that we’re used to seeing in Dover,” he said. “You see lorries filling up the motorways while they’re waiting to go through customs. Imagine that at every port in the country. It would all need policing.
“That is very resource intensive, but we can’t even start planning for it until we get the information from the Government. But there’s not much doubt that it would happen and one of the effects is on the strategic motorway network. Your average person trying to get from A to B would be affected just in trying to travel the country.”
He told me he also feared that enhanced border checks in Northern Ireland could lead to profound challenges for officers in Northern Ireland, who he described as being “at the sharp end of Brexit”.
“There’s a volatility that bubbles away and both sides [in Northern Ireland] are clearly passionate about their view,” he said.
“I think if either side saw their view being pushed to one side, them being disadvantaged, there’s a difficulty there, a potential difficulty there that they may then express those views negatively.”
By that you mean trouble? “Quite possibly, yes.”