The United Kingdom's auto industry has shifted its tone from quiet resignation to angry bellowing as the government once again failed to gain a consensus within Parliament on its future relationship with the EU.
Automakers such as Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and BMW have long opposed Brexit because it isolates the U.K. from its biggest trading partner but held out hope that a negotiated settlement would keep in place many of the benefits of the current trading partnership.
However, after Parliament voted down Prime Minister Theresa May's deal for an orderly separation last week, automakers are now bracing for their most feared outcome: leaving the EU on March 29 with no deal at all.
"I've done what any sane person would do: I've assumed the worst," Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer said at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit last week. "I've assumed that we'll crash out of Europe."
A departure without a deal means that all agreements the U.K. has with the EU are torn up, and the trading relationship reverts to basic, World Trade Organization rules. That means tariffs, border customs checks to ensure regulatory compliance and no transition period to ease in the changes. It would inevitably cause queues at ports and serious damage to the delicate supply chain painstakingly built up over the years to ship parts daily to and from continental Europe.
" 'No deal' would be catastrophic for the automotive industry," said Mike Hawes, head of the U.K.'s automotive lobby group, the SMMT. As with most lobbyists, their harshest words were usually saved for closed-door briefings. Not anymore.
Automakers are in advanced stages of planning to counter the disruption to parts supply after March 29 in a no-deal outcome. Honda is shutting down its U.K. plant for six days in April, while BMW is bringing forward its summer shutdown at its Mini plant. Aston Martin and Bentley have rerouted parts to avoid the key Dover access port, including in Aston's case using planes.
"Fortunately, our business is small enough that we can contemplate flying parts from Europe," Palmer said at the forum in Detroit, just as news of the no vote in London was flashing on attendees' cellphone screens. "And so that's the plan that we've enacted. We have a 12-week planning window for our production, so we order the parts 12 weeks ahead of the car being built. Obviously, that period of time now spans the 29th of March and so it's no longer academic for us. ... It's real."
At Bentley, "we have two scenarios on how we're going to run production in April if there is a no-deal: either closing down for one day per week for five weeks, or closing down for a week," CEO Adrian Hallmark said at the World Congress. "A no-deal would have major negative consequences for a period."
Ford has made its own no-deal preparations for its two engine plants but still believes the U.K. will either strike a favorable deal with the EU or cancel Brexit altogether, possibly following a second referendum. "Ford continues to view a no-deal exit as the least likely outcome given how damaging it will be," CFO Bob Shanks told the Deutsche Bank conference in Detroit last week. "Such a situation would be catastrophic for the U.K. industry and for Ford's operations in the country."