In an attempt to diminish the importance of the Yellowhammer leak, Downing Street briefed journalists on 18 August that “this document is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available. It has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders. Those obstructing preparation are no longer in government, £2 billion of extra funding has already been made available and Whitehall has been stood up to actually do the work through the daily ministerial meetings. The entire posture of government has changed.”
The document turned out to have been dated 2 August. This proved that the Downing Street briefing was untrue. It had been produced during Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister.
This statement was a deliberate attempt by Boris Johnson’s Downing Street to smear an unnamed minister in the Theresa May government for the Yellowhammer leak. This smear was based on a falsehood — namely that it was an old document prepared for the May government. The press duly played along, launching a witch hunt for the minister who leaked it. The next day, The Daily Express splashed on its front page “PROJECT FEAR BID TO BLOCK BORIS.” The Express asked on its website: “Who leaked the no deal Brexit preparedness document?” The Daily Telegraph’s front page read: “No-deal leak blamed on Hammond's Remainers.” The Daily Mail, The Times and The Guardian all led their stories with the Downing Street accusation against former ministers.
In response to these headlines, Philip Hammond wrote a public letter to Johnson. Referring to the No. 10 briefing, he said: “The clear implication was that a Minister in the last government had retained, and then leaked, a copy of this document. The media has speculated accordingly on the source of the document.” Hammond went on: “It has now become apparent that the leaked document was, in fact, dated August 2019 and would not, therefore, have been available to any former Minister who is not serving in the current administration. Accordingly, I am writing on behalf of all former Ministers in the last Administration to ask you to withdraw these allegations which question our integrity, acknowledge that no former Minister could have leaked this document, and apologise for the misleading briefing from No. 10.”
Downing Street has neither withdrawn the allegations nor issued Hammond with an apology.
The anonymous Downing Street source who briefed the press on about Yellowhammer was lying. The story of the Yellowhammer leak shines a spotlight on the role played by the British media in the propagation and normalisation of the lies of Boris Johnson and his government. Note first of all the readiness of Michael Gove and an unnamed Downing Street spokesman to tell untruths when confronted with unwelcome news. Note also how the press swiftly moved the Yellowhammer story from a warning about the dangers of no-deal Brexit to a leak inquiry. This leak inquiry was based on a fabricated statement issued by an unnamed Downing Street official who had issued a false statement to the media that the document was out of date and leaked by a malicious former minister. This technique vividly recalls the way US President Donald Trump has routinely been able to call on media allies, above all Fox News, to twist the political agenda away from his own lies and against his political enemies. It is notable how even The Guardian, not a Tory newspaper, fell for this cynical and mendacious Downing Street ploy.